The Seven Steps of the Sale

The Seven Steps of the Sale is the most common traditional structure used for explaining and training the selling process for the sales call or meeting, including what immediately precedes and follows it. This structure is usually represented as the Seven Steps of the Sale, but it can can be five, six, eight or more, depending whose training manual you’re reading.

This structure assumes that the appointment has been made, or in the instance of a cold-call, that the prospect has agreed to discuss things there and then. The process for appointment-making is a different one, which is shown later in this section. Aside from the questioning stage, this structure also applies to a sales visit which been arranged for the purpose of presenting products/services or a specific proposal following an invitation, earlier discussions or meetings. For these pre-arranged presentations it is assumed that the sales person has already been through the questioning stage at prior meetings.

The Seven Steps of the Sale remains a helpful structure for sales and sales training, but do bear in mind that the concept is over forty years old, and these days the modern collaboration and facilitation methods are a lot more effective, typically when treated as a front-end to the Seven Steps or incorporated withing the first stage as an approach. The collaborative selling section includes an augmented ‘seven steps of the sale’ which includes integrated modern ‘facilitative’ sales skills, of which Sharon Drew Morgen’s ‘Buying Facilitation’® is a uniquely special and effective model.

Seven Steps of the Sale

The original commonly used Seven Steps terminology is in bold. In recent years more sophisticated interpretation and application of the Seven-Step selling process requires the model to be expanded and interpreted with more subtlety and flexibility, as shown here:

  1. Preparation/planning/research/approach (using facilitative methods)
  2. Introduction/opening/approach/establish initial credibility
  3. Questioning/identify needs/ask how and what, etc/establish rapport and trust
  4. Presentation/explanation/demonstration
  5. Overcoming objections/negotiating/fine-tuning
  6. Close/closing/agreement/commitment/confirmation
  7. Follow-up/after-sales/fulfil/deliver/admin

the seven steps of the sale in summary

1. Planning and preparation (the seven steps of the sale – 1)

Generally, the larger the prospect organization, the more research you should do before any sales call at which you will be expected, or are likely, to present you company’s products or services.

  • ensure know your own product/service extremely well – especially features, advantages and benefits that will be relevant to the prospect you will be meeting
  • ascertain as far as you can the main or unique perceived organizational benefit that your product or service would give to your prospect
  • discover what current supply arrangements exist or are likely to exist for the product/service in question, and assess what the present supplier’s reaction is likely to be if their business is at threat
  • understand what other competitors are able and likely to offer, and which ones are being considered if any
  • identify as many of the prospect organization’s decision-makers and influencers as you can, and assess as much as far as you can what their needs, motives and relationships are
  • try to get a feel for what the organizational politics are
  • what are the prospect’s organizational decision-making process and financial parameters (eg., budgets, year-end date)
  • what are your prospect’s strategic issues, aims, priorities and problems, or if you can’t discover these pre-meeting, what are they generally for the market sector in which the prospect operates?
  • prepare your opening statements and practice your sales presentation
  • prepare your presentation in the format in which you are to give it (e.g., MS Powerpoint slides for laptop or projected presentation) plus all materials, samples, hand-outs, brochures, etc., and always have spares – allow for more than the planned numbers as extra people often appear at the last minute – see the presentation section for more detailed guidance on designing formal sales presentations
  • prepare a checklist of questions or headings that will ensure you gather all the information you need from the meeting
  • think carefully about what you want to get from the meeting and organise your planning to achieve it
  • understand and make the most of cold calling: despite the tendency for some organizations to position cold calling as a lowly de-skilled canvassing or enquiry-generation activity, cold calling increasingly enables sales people to become more strategic and significant in the sales function

2. introduction/opening (the seven steps of the sale – 2)

  • smile – be professional, and take confidence from the fact that you are well-prepared
  • introduce yourself – first and last name, what your job is and the company you represent, and what the your company does (ensure this is orientated to appeal to the prospect’s strategic issues)
  • set the scene – explain the purpose of your visit, again orientate around your prospect not yourself, eg “I’d like to learn about your situation and priorities in this area, and then if appropriate, to explain how we (your own company) approach these issues. Then if there looks as though there might be some common ground, to agree how we could move to the next stage.”
  • ask how much time your prospect has and agree a time to finish
  • ask if it’s okay to take notes (it’s polite to ask – also, all business information is potentially sensitive, and asking shows you realise this)
  • ask if it’s okay to start by asking a few questions or whether your prospect would prefer a quick overview of your own company first (this will depend on how strongly know and credible your own company is – if only a little you should plan to give a quick credibility-building overview in your introduction)

3. Questioning (the seven steps of the sale – 3)

  • while questioning is a vital aspect of selling, the principles and techniques of questioning are mostly transferable to other situations where questioning is essential for effective cooperation and relationships – these questioning guidelines therefore extend to applications beyond sales and selling
  • empathy and listening are crucial in questioning – understanding body language is useful too
  • a major purpose of questioning in the traditional selling process is to identify the strongest need or benefit perceived by the prospect relating to the product/service being offered by the seller
  • as the questioner you need also to understand very clearly what you are seeking from the relationship – questioning should aim to identify a mutual fit – relationship work when theer is a good fit for both sides
  • buyers commonly have one main need or benefit, and a number of supporting needs/benefits
  • needs and benefits may be obvious to seller and buyer, or not obvious to either, in which case questioning expertise is critical in selling, as it is an all other relationships where motives and change are involved
  • questioning must also discover how best to develop the relationship and the sale with the organization – how the organization decides: timings, authority levels, the people and procedures involved, competitor pressures, etc.
  • good empathic questioning also builds relationships, trust and rapport – nobody wants to buy anything from a sales person who’s only interested in their own product or company – we all want to buy from somebody who gives the time and skill to interpreting and properly meeting our own personal needs
  • to be professional in your approach you should prepare a list of questions or headings before the discussion
  • aside from complex variations, there are two main sorts of questions: open questions and closed questions
  • broadly open questions gather information and build rapport; closed questions filter, qualify and seek commitment
  • open questions invite the other person to give long answers; closed questions invite the other person to say yes or no, or to select from (usually two) options, for example red or blue, or mornings or afternoons, etc
  • use open questions to gather information – typically for example, questions beginning with Who? What? Why? Where? When? and How?
  • when training or learning the skills of using open questions it helps to refer to the Rudyard Kipling rhyme: “I keep six honest serving men, They taught me all I knew; Their names are What and Why and When, And How and Where and Who..” This is from Just So Stories, 1902, The Elephant’s Child –
  • use “Can you tell me about how…” if you are questioning a senior-level contact – generally the more senior the contact, the bigger the open questions you can ask, and the more the other person will be comfortable and able to give you the information you need in a big explanation
  • ‘what…? and ‘how…?’ are the best words to use in open questions because they provoke thinking and responses about facts and feelings in a non-threatening way
  • use ‘why?’ to find out reasons and motives beneath the initial answers given, but be very careful and sparing in using ‘why’ because the word ‘why?’ is threatening to many people – it causes the other person to feel they have to defend or justify themselves, and as such will not bring out the true situation and feelings, especially in early discussions with people when trust and rapport is at a low level
  • listen carefully and empathically, maintain good eye-contact, understand, and show that you understand – especially understand what is meant and felt, not just what is said, particularly when you probe motives and personal aspects
  • interpret and reflect back and confirm you have understood what is being explained, and if relevant the feelings behind it
  • use closed questions to qualify and confirm your interpretation – a closed question is one that can be answered with a yes or no, eg., “Do you mean that when this type of equipment goes down then all production ceases?”, or “Are you saying that if a new contract is not put in place by end-March then the existing one automatically renews for another year?”
  • when you’ve asked a question, you must then be quiet – do not interrupt – allow the other person time and freedom to answer
  • the other person (your ‘prospect’ in selling language) should be doing 80-99% of the talking during this stage of the sales discussion; if you are talking for a third or half of the time you are not asking the right sort of questions
  • do not jump onto an opportunity and start explaining how you can solve the problem until you have asked all your questions and gathered all the information you need (in any event you should never be seen to ‘jump’ onto any issue)
  • all the time try to find out the strategic issues affected or implicated by the product/service in question – these are where the ultimate decision-making and buying motives lie
  • if during the questioning you think of a new important question to ask note it down or you’ll probably forget it
  • when you have all the information you need, acknowledge the fact and say thanks, then take a few moments to think about, discuss and summarise the key issues/requirements/priorities from your prospect’s organizational (and personal if applicable) perspective
  • questioning is traditionally treated by conventional sales people and conventional sales training as a process to gather information to assist the sales person’s process, and this is how it is typically positioned in the old-style ‘Seven Steps of the Sale’; however, modern sales methodology treats questioning in a radically different way – as an essential part of a facilitative process whose purpose is to help the buyer decide 
  • questioning is a fundamentally important part of selling – techniques being increasingly developed and refined far beyond early selling techniques – transferable to and from other disciplines (notably coaching, counselling, therapy, etc)

4. Presentation (the seven steps of the sale – 4)

  • the sales presentation should focus on a central proposition, which should be the unique perceived benefit that the prospect gains from the product/service
  • during the questioning phase the sales person will have refined the understanding (and ideally gained agreement) as to what this is – the presentation must now focus on ‘matching’ the benefits of the product with the needs of the prospect so that the prospect is entirely satisfied that the proposition
  • the sales person therefore needs an excellent understanding of the many different organizational benefits that accrue to customers, and why, from the product/service – these perceived benefits will vary according to the type of customer organization (size, structure, market sector, strategy, general economic health, culture, etc)
  • the sales presentation must demonstrate that the product/service meets the prospect’s needs, priorities, constraints and motives, or the prospect will not even consider buying or moving to the next stage; this is why establishing the prospect’s situation and priorities during the questioning phase is so vital
  • the above point is especially important to consider when the sales person has to present on more than one occasion to different people or groups, who will each have different personal and organizational needs, and will therefore respond to different benefits (even though the central proposition and main perceived benefit remains constant)
  • all sales presentations, whether impromptu (off the cuff) or the result of significant preparation, must be well structured, clear and concise, professionally delivered, and have lots of integrity – the quality and integrity of the presentation is always regarded as a direct indication as to the quality and integrity of the product/service
  • it follows then that the sales person must avoid simply talking about technical features from the seller’s point of view, without linking the features clearly to organizational context and benefit for the prospect – also avoid using any jargon which the prospect may not understand
  • sales presentations must always meet the expectations of the listener in terms of the level of information and relevance to the prospect’s own situation, which is another reason for proper preparation – a vague or poorly prepared sales presentation sticks out like a sore thumb, and it will be disowned immediately
  • when presenting to influencers, which is necessary on occasions, it is important to recognise that the sales person is effectively asking the influencers to personally endorse the proposition and the credibility of the selling organization and the sales person, so the influencers’ needs in these areas are actually part of the organizational needs of the prospect company
  • the presentation must include relevant evidence of success, references from similar sectors and applications, facts and figures – all backing up the central proposition
  • business decision-makers buy when they become satisfied that the decision will either make them money, or save them money or time; they also need to be certain that the new product/service will be sustainable and reliable; therefore the presentation must be convincing in these areas
  • private consumer buyers ultimately buy for similar reasons, but for more personal ones as well, eg., image, security, ego, etc., which may need to feature in these type of presentations if they form part of the main perceived benefit
  • while the presentation must always focus on the main perceived benefit, it is important to show that all the other incidental requirements and constraints are met – but do not over-emphasise or attempt to ‘pile high’ loads of incidental benefits as this simply detracts from the central proposition
  • presentations should use the language and style of the audience – eg., technical people need technical evidence; sales and marketing people like to see flair and competitive advantage accruing for their own sales organization; managing directors and finance directors want clear, concise benefits to costs, profits and operating efficiency; and generally the more senior the contact, the less time you will have to make your point – no-nonsense, no frills, but plenty of relevant hard facts and evidence.
  • if the sales person is required to present to a large group and in great depth, then it’s extremely advisable to enlist the help of one or two suitably experienced colleagues, from the appropriate functions, eg., technical, customer service, distribution, etc., in which case the sales person must ensure that these people are properly briefed and prepared, and the prospect notified of their attendance.
  • keep control of the presentation, but do so in a relaxed way; if you don’t know the answer to a question don’t waffle – say you don’t know and promise to get back with an answer later, and make sure you do.
  • never knock the competition – it undermines your credibility and integrity – don’t even imply anything derogatory about the competition
  • if appropriate issue notes, or a copy of your presentation
  • use props and samples and demonstrations if relevant and helpful, and make sure it all works properly
  • during the presentation seek feedback, confirmation and agreement as to the relevance of what you are saying, but don’t be put off if people stay quiet
  • invite questions at the end, and if your are comfortable, at the outset invite questions at any time – it depends on how confident you feel in controlling things
  • whether presenting one-to-one or to a stern group, relax and be friendly – let your personality and natural enthusiasm shine through – people buy from people who love and have faith in their products and companies

5. Overcoming objections/negotiating (the seven steps of the sale – 5)

  • decades ago it was assumed that at this stage lots of objections could appear, and this would tend to happen, because the selling process was more prescriptive, one-way, and less empathic; however, successful modern selling now demands more initial understanding from the sales person, even to get as far as presenting, so the need to overcome objections is not such a prevalent feature of the selling process
  • nevertheless objections do arise, and they can often be handled constructively, which is the key
  • if objections arise, firstly the sales person should qualify each one by reflecting back to the person who raised it, to establish the precise nature of the objection – “why do you say that?” , or better still, “what makes you say that?, is usually a good start
  • it may be necessary to probe deeper to get to the real issue, by asking why to a series of answers – some objections result from misunderstandings, and some are used to veil other misgivings which the sales person needs to expose
  • lots of objections are simply a request for more information, so definitely avoid responding by trying to re-sell the benefit – simply ask and probe instead; the best standard response is something like “I understand why that could be an issue, can I ask you to tell me more about why it is and what’s important for you here?..”
  • try to avoid altogether the use of the word ‘but’ – it’s inherently confrontational
  • an old-style technique was to reflect back the objection as a re-phrased question, but in a form that the sales person is confident of being able to answer positively, for example: the prospect says he thinks it’s too expensive; the sales person reflects back: “I think what you’re really saying is that you have no problem with giving us the contract, but you’d prefer the payments staged over three years rather than two? – well I think we could probably do something about that…”
  • another old-style technique used to be to isolate the objection (confirm that other than that sticking point everything else was fine), then to overcome the objection by drawing up a list of pro’s and con’s, or analysing to death all the hidden costs of not going for the deal, or re-selling the benefits even harder, and then to close powerfully, but these days such a contrived approach to objection handling is likely to insult the prospect and blow the sales person’s credibility
  • the ‘feel-felt-found’ technique was another popular tactic in overcoming objections: this is a response built around the three ‘feel felt found’ elements: “I understand how you feel/why you feel that…//Other customers have felt just the same/that…//But (or ‘And’) when… they have found that…” The method uses empathy in stage one, neutrality and group reference (shifting the issue away from personal confrontation) in stage two, and then counters the objection and reinforces the benefits using (alleged) majority evidence in stage three, in the hope of persuading the buyer that he/she is isolated and missing out if deciding not to buy
  • it is important to flush out all of the objections, and in so doing, the sales person is effectively isolating them as the only reasons why the prospect should not proceed, but then the more modern approach is to work with the prospect in first understanding what lies beneath each objection, and then working with the prospect to shape the proposition so that it fits more acceptably with what is required.
  • avoid head-to-head arguments – even if you win them you’ll destroy the relationship you’ll go no further – instead the sales person must enable a constructive discussion so that he and the prospect are both working at the problem together; provided the basic proposition is sound most objections are usually overcome by both the seller and the buyer adjusting their positions slightly; for large prospects and contracts this process can go on for weeks, which is why this is often more in the negotiating arena than objection handling
  • you’ve handled all the objections when you’ve covered everything that you’ve noted down – it’s therefore important to keep notes and show that you’re doing it
  • by this stage you may have seen some signs that the prospect is clearly visualising or imagining the sale proceeding, or even talking in terms of your working together as supplier and customer; this is sometimes called buying warmth. Certain questions and comments from prospects are described as buying signals because they indicate that the prospect may be visualising buying or having the product/service. In the old days, sales people were taught to respond to early buying signals with a ‘trial close’, but this widely perceived as clumsy and insulting nowadays. Instead respond to early buying signals (ie those received before you’ve completed the presentation to the prospect’s satisfaction, and answered all possible queries) by asking why the question is important, and then by answering as helpfully as possible

6. close/closing/agreement (the seven steps of the sale – 6)

  • in modern selling, even using the traditional Seven Steps process, every sales person’s aim should be to prepare and conduct the selling process so well that there are few if any objections, and no need for a close
  • the best close these days is something like “Are you happy that we’ve covered everything and would you like to go ahead?”, or simply “Would you like to go ahead?”
  • in many cases, if the sales person conducts the sale properly, the prospect will close the deal himself, and this should be the another aim for the sales person – it’s civilised, respectful, and actually implies and requires a high level of sales professionalism
  • the manner in which a sale is concluded depends on the style of the decision-maker – watch out for the signs: no-nonsense high-achievers are likely to decide very quickly and may be a little irritated if you leave matters hanging after they’ve indicated they’re happy; cautious technical people will want every detail covered and may need time to think, so don’t push them, but do stay in touch and make sure they have all the information they need; very friendly types may actually say yes before they’re ready, in which case you need to ensure that everything is suitably covered so nothing can rebound later
  • for the record here are some closes from the bad old days – the traditional golden rule was always to shut up after asking a closing question, even if the silence became embarrassingly long – (a who-talks-first-loses kind of thing) – use them at your peril:
  • the pen close: “Do you want to use your pen or mine?” (while producing the contract and pen)
  • the alternative close: for example – “Would you like it delivered next Tuesday or next Friday?”, or “We can do the T50 model in silver, and we have a T52 in white – which one would you prefer?”
  • the challenge close: “I know most men wouldn’t be able to buy something of this value without consulting their wives – do you need to get your wife’s permission on this?..” or “Most business people in your position need to refer this kind of decision to their boss, do you need to refer it?”
  • the ego close: “We generally find that only the people who appreciate and are prepared to pay for the best quality go for this service – I don’t know how you feel about it?…”
  • the negative close: “I’m sorry but due to the holidays we can’t deliver in the three weeks after the 15th, so we can only do it next week, is that okay?”
  • the guilt close: “Over three years it might seem a lot of money, but we find that most responsible people decide they simply have no choice but to go for it when it’s less than a pound/dollar a day to protect your…/safeguard your…./improve your… (whatever).”
  • the sympathy close: “I know you have some reservations that we can’t overcome right now, but I’ve got to admit that I’m pretty desperate for this sale – my manager says he’ll sack me if I don’t get an order this week, and you’re my last chance – I’d be ever so grateful if you’d go ahead – and I promise you we’d be able to sort out the extra features once I speak to our production people…” (How could anyone live with themselves using that one?….)
  • the puppy dog close/puppy dog sale: “Let me leave it with you and you see how you get on with it…”
  • the last ditch close: (sales person packs case and goes to leave, but stops at the door) “Just one last thing – would you tell me where I went wrong – you see I just know this is right for you, and I feel almost guilty that I’ve not sold it to you properly, as if I’ve let you down…..”
  • the pro’s and con’s list: “I can appreciate this is a tough decision – what normally works is to write down a list of all the pro’s and con’s – two separate columns – and then we can both see clearly if overall it’s the right thing to do…”
  • the elimination close: “I can see I’ve not explained this properly – can we take a moment to go through all the benefits and see which one is holding us back from proceeding?” (At which the sales person lists all the benefits – the positives, and runs through each one to confirm it’s not that one which is causing the problem, crossing a line through each as he goes. When he crosses the last one out he can claim that there really seems to be no reason for not going ahead…)

7. follow-up/fulfilment/delivery/admin (the seven steps of the sale – 7)

  • after-sales follow-up depends on the type of product and service, but generally for every sale the sales person must carry out a number of important processes:
  • all relevant paperwork must be completed and copies provided to the customer – paperwork is will cover the processing of the order, the confirmation of the order and its details to the customer, possibly the completion of installation and delivery specification and instructions
  • Sales reporting by the sales person is also necessary, generally on a pro-forma or computer screen, typically detailing the order value, product type and quantity, and details about the customer such as industrial sector – each sales organization stipulates the sales person’s reporting requirements, and often these are linked to sales commissions and bonuses, etc.
  • The sales person should also make follow-up contact with the customer – as often as necessary – to confirm that the customer is happy with the way the order is being progressed; this helps reduce possible confusion and misunderstood expectations, which are a big cause of customer dissatisfaction or order cancellation if left to fester unresolved
  • Customer follow-up and problem resolution must always be the responsibility for the sales person, who should consider themselves the ‘guardian’ of that customer, even if a well-organised customer service exists for general after-sales care
  • Customers rightly hold sales people responsible for what happens after the sale is made, and good conscientious follow-up will usually be rewarded with referrals to other customers – this is also helpful for networking
  • Follow-up is an important indicator of integrity; when a sales person makes a sale he is personally endorsing the product and the company, so ensuring that value and satisfaction are fulfilled is an integral part of the modern sales function

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