Creative Selling: The Competitive Advantage
By U.S. Small Business Administration
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While we consider the contents of this publication to be of general
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does not necessarily constitute an endorsement of the views and
opinions of the authors or the products and services of the companies
with which they are affiliated.
All of SBA's programs and services are extended to the public
on a nondiscriminatory basis.
TYPES OF SALES PERSONS
CREATIVE SELLING PROCESS
ATTRIBUTES OF A CREATIVE SALESPERSON
APPENDIX: INFORMATION RESOURCES
An important ingredient in the successful retail or service business
is good selling. Without it, many sales are lost -- sales that may
mean the difference between success and failure. This publication
tells you how you can train yourself and your employees to become
creative sales people.
To many customers, the salesperson is the business. Therefore,
if the sales personnel are good, the business is good. But if the
sales personnel are bad, then so is the firm. Although important
to all businesses, effective sales personnel are especially important
to small businesses. Why? Because it is difficult for a small business
to compete with the big firms on things like assortment, price,
and promotion. Selling effort, on the other hand, is one place where
the small product or service retail business can compete with larger
competitors -- and win.
Effective selling doesn't happen by accident. The small entrepreneur
must work to achieve a high level of sales effectiveness in his
or her business. In order to work toward this goal, the businessperson
should be aware of the different types of salesperson, the selling
process, and the attributes of effective salespersons. Applying
such knowledge to a business situation should result in the desired
goal of effective sales personnel -- the competitive edge.
It is important to note that retailing may involve selling services
instead of products. Appliance repair, beauty shop, lawn service,
and photography studio are all examples of service retailing. Even
though services are intangible, personal, nonstandardized, and perishable
when compared to products, they are sold by retailers either alone
or in conjunction with products. The effective selling of services
has the potential to give a business a competitive advantage.
TYPES OF SALESPERSONS
There are three main types of sales personnel (Figure 1)
Order Handler. The ticket-taker at the concert, the
checker at the food store -- these salespeople are working in
a routine selling environment. But due to the nature of their
jobs, they will be asked numerous questions by customers as well
as hear complaints about prices and services. A knowledgeable
person with a pleasant personality is especially needed for this
job, because this is usually the person who is dealing with the
customer when the customer's money (payment) is received.
Order-Taker. As noted in Figure 1, more creativity is
found in this job as compared to the order-handler. The counter
attendant at the fast food restaurant may take the order and then
suggest that the customer might also wish to buy a hot apple turnover.
Pleasant personality, fast service, and suggestion selling on
the part of the order-taker can result in many additional sales.
Order-Getter. For many businesses, the heart of the
selling process rests with the creative selling efforts of their
salespeople. Of course, one of the greatest problems is that there
are numerous order-handlers and order-takers in selling positions
that should have order-getters for optimum selling effectiveness.
Clothing, furniture, jewelry, and appliances are just some of
the many items that call for order-getters (a person who can handle
a transaction, take an order and, most importantly, get an order).
As for services, the home security salesperson, for example, who
calls on a prospect because it is observed that the house has
no dead bolt locks, is making that special effort to be an order-getter.
Even though all selling situations do not call for order-getters,
all salespeople will be called upon to sell creatively from time
to time. It is for this reason that all sales personnel need to
have a working knowledge of the creative selling process.
CREATIVE SELLING PROCESS
As shown in Figure 2, the creative selling process consists
of eight steps, none of which is less important than any other
if the process is to be effective. It should be emphasized to
all employees that all steps are vital to the achievement of effective
1. Pre-Customer Contact.
A smart builder would not attempt to build a house without
a good foundation. Likewise, a businessperson should not place
people on the sales floor or telephone until these people know
the business, merchandise, services and customers. Before any
contact is made with the customer, very salesperson should know.
Polices, Procedures, and Rules. Have these in writing for all
employees to see and to know.
Operation of Equipment. No matter whether the register is electronic
or mechanical, the time to learn how to work it is not after a
ales while the customer waits for change.
Target Market Knowledge. The better sales person knows something
of the likes and dislikes of the firm's primary customers. The
business operator should tell all sales personnel about the business's
customers and their lifestyles. Tell the salespeople about customer's
interests and ability to buy.
Product Knowledge. A salesperson gains confidence by knowing
about the products and services he or she is selling. If a person
sells shoes, it helps to know the merchandise as well as how to
If a person sells building materials, the selling job is probably
more effective if the salesperson can also help answer questions
about home repairs. It helps the person who sells clothes to know
something about fabrics and current fashions. If the person is
in the lawn service business, that person should know about lawn
care. Most sales personnel will not take the initiative to acquire
product knowledge on their own. It is management's responsibility
to encourage employees to gain product and service knowledge.
Management should make such knowledge available to them.
Although not appropriate to every selling situation, prospecting
should be used whenever possible.
Essentially, prospecting involves not waiting for the customer
to show up at a store or to phone about a service. It is concerned
with taking the initiative by going to the customer with a product
or service idea. Prospecting may be of two types: new or regular
New Customer Prospecting. A salesperson sees that a person
is getting married. Action is taken on this knowledge by contacting
the person and telling her about appropriate items (or services)
that might be of assistance to a new bride. By using newspapers
and personal contacts, a salesperson can take the initiative to
contact and create new customers.
Regular Customer Prospecting. A firm's best prospects are its
current customers. A salesperson should make a practice of calling
regular customers on a periodic basis to tell them about products
or services. "Hello. Mrs. Anderson, I just want to tell you
about the new shipment of dresses that we received today. As I
unpacked them, I saw several that made me think of you."
Prospecting with regular customers works! All salespeople should
be encouraged to prospect by phone and in-person whenever they
see regular customers. A word of caution must be emphasized. Don't
go to the well too often. Prospecting with the same regular customer
on a frequent basis can make prospecting lose the special feeling
that it can create in customers. Do not overuse it.
3. Initial Contact.
The most effective way to close a sale is to open it on a positive
note. Unfortunately, most sales do not open this way. The typical
initial store contact begins in this manner:
Clerk:"May I help you?"
Customer: "No thank you. I'm just looking."
This ritual leaves much to be desired. Why? It is an automatic
statement that shows no creativity on the part of the salesperson.
Also, because the customer has heard this statement many times,
his or her response is usually given without thinking what was
said. Every salesperson should be challenged to treat each customer
as an individual by responding differently to each customer.
Initial contact also means responding to customers when they
enter the sales areas even when they cannot be waited on immediately.
Salespeople should be instructed to tell waiting customers that,
"I'll be with you in a moment." Such actions will reduce
the number of customers who leave without being served. When the
employee is free to help the waiting customer, the initial comment
should be, "Thank you, for waiting." A courteous, creative
initial contact with the customer can go a long way to promote
4. Presentation of Merchandise.
In presenting merchandise (or services) to the customer, the
salesperson should use product knowledge to best advantage. How?
Buy Benefits. Although it is good to talk about the lawnmower's
3 1/2 horsepower mower, customers may be more interested in hearing
about how fast the lawnmower will cut the grass. Product knowledge
is important but the salesperson must remember what makes the
customer buy. Clothes may be made of durable fabrics, but it is
also important to stress the implied benefit that they will also
appeal to the opposite sex. Sell benefits!
Customer Involvement. Product knowledge can be used to get
customer involvement. Show the customer several features of the
digital watch and then have the customer put it on and work it.
If the interest is there, it will be hard for the customer to
take off the watch so that the salesperson can put it back into
the case. The best way to present many products is to get involvement.
Want to sell dance lessons? Get the customer on the dance floor
and let the fun of dancing do some of the selling.
The same is true with clothes, perfume, sports equipment, and
almost anything else.
Limit the Choices. If during the sales presentation more than
three items are in front of the customer, the changes of a sale
are reduced while the possibility of shoplifting is increased.
If, for example, the salesperson continues to carry dresses into
the fitting room for the customer to try without removing any
from consideration, the customer will likely not buy any because
of the inability to decide from among so many choices. Also, with
so many items under study, the clerk may lose track of how many
items are in the fitting room. It is possible that some may be
put on under the customer's clothes while the clerk is not present,
thereby resulting in an expensive experience for the store. Likewise,
if a travel agency attempts to sell a customer a Caribbean cruise,
the changes of making the sale will diminish if too many trip
options are presented. Unless there is a definite reason for an
exception, the rule of three (never show more than three choices
at one time) should be followed whenever merchandise is presented.
Limited choices have been found to promote sales.
Use Showmanship. In presenting merchandise to the customer,
encourage all personnel to be creative. Be enthusiastic about
the merchandise. Hold the necklace up for the customer to see
Make the portable baby crib "look" easy to work.
Lay the different pieces of the cookware set before the customer
in an attractive easy-to-see everything manner. Ask your salespeople
to think like a customer. If I were a customer, what would I like
Message Adaptation. A knowledgeable salesperson should know
about the products being sold.
Message adaptation involves deciding what information is needed
to sell a particular customer and how that information should
be presented to that customer. Canned sales presentations do not
allow for adaptation. The effective sales person will make an
effort to adjust the presentation to the customer. If the customer
knows about gardens and lawns, the person selling a lawn service
should adapt the sales presentation to the level of the customer's
expertise. Don't bore the customer with known facts. It could
lose a sale.
5. Handling Objections.
Remember, if objections are present, progress is probably being
made on the sale. Most salespeople are afraid of objections. Stress
to all employees that objections are a natural part of the selling
process. They do not mean that the sale is lost. In most cases,
all that is required to overcome an objection is more selling
on the part of the salesperson.
Common types of customer objections that are faced by a salesperson
Product: "That dress looks out-of-date."
Store: "You never have the right merchandise."
Service: "If I believe what I hear, I can't get good
service from you."
Price: "It is just too expensive."
Salesperson: "Are you sure these shoes fit right?"
These and other objections can be met by the salesperson in
several ways. Using the above product objection as an example,
these methods include:
Yet-But: "Yes, it does look out-of-date, but it is the
latest." This approach beings on a positive note by agreeing
with the customer and then moves on to answer the objection.
Counterquestion. "Why do you feel it's out-of-date?"
The counterquestion puts the ball back in the customer's court.
By asking "Why?" the real reason for the objection may
Restate Objection. "You feel that the dress looks out-of-date."
By restating the objection, the customer may respond by saying,
"No, I mean it just doesn't look right on me," or something
of a similar nature. This approach tends to reduce the magnitude
of the objection in the eyes of the customer.
Direct Response. "The dress you have on was first shown
at the market this season It is the latest thing." Although
offensive to some, this approach may be necessary if the customer
is not going to buy unless the untruth can be corrected. Tact
is important when using this approach.
These four approaches for handling objections are not meant
to be all-inclusive. These and other approaches do point out,
however, that objections should and can be answered by the salesperson.
Unless objections are overcome to the satisfaction of the customer,
it is questionable the sale will be made.
6. Closing the Sale.
In various ways, the salesperson can assist the customer by
helping him or her to make the buying decision. Closing techniques
that can aid in this effort include:
Offer a Service. "Let us deliver it to you this afternoon."
A "Yes" implies purchase.
Give a Choice: "Do you want the five-piece or eight-piece
cooking set? Either choice implies purchase. Note that "No"
was not one of the choices.
Offer an Incentive. "If you buy now, you get 10 percent
off the already low price." If you wait, you don't get the
10 percent discount.
Better Not Wait. "If you want this refrigerator, butter
get it now. It's the last one in stock." Note it pays to
be honest. If the customer buys and then comes by the store the
next day and sees that the store did have another one, this closing
technique may have made the sale, but it could lose the customer.
7. Suggestion Selling.
The customer has made a purchase. Now what? Encourage your
sales personnel to make a definite suggestion for a possible additional
sale. For many businesses, sales can be increased by 25 percent
through positive suggestion selling. Please note that statements
such as: "Will there be something else?" or "Can
I get you something else?" are not suggestion selling. They
do not make a positive suggestion. When the customer buys a lamp,
what about a light bulb to go in it? IF a picture is purchased,
what about the necessary hardware to hang it properly? If a suit
is bought, what about a new blouse or shirt that goes well with
the color? Where appropriate, the creative sales person will actually
get the suggested item and show it to the customer. Or if a person
brings in a watch to be repaired, why not also clean it while
it is taken apart? This type of initiative usually results in
more sales. It should be emphasized that most customers like to
receive a valid suggestion. In some cases, suggestions may even
permit the customer to avoid another shopping trip to pick up
that needed item that they had not thought about. Good suggestion
selling makes sales and builds confidence in the firm's business.
8. Sales Follow-Up
Although not apparent to many salespeople, follow-up is a part
of every sale. The closing statement, "Thank you for shopping
at (name of store," is a form of sales follow-up if done
Unfortunately, just making the statement in an automatic manner
is about as effective as that other worn out phrase, "May
I help you?" If done correctly, however, it allows the customer
to leave on a positive note, thereby increasing the changes of
repeat business by the customer.
Follow-up may also concern itself with checking on anything
that was promised the customer after the sale. If delivery is
supposed to take place on Friday, the salesperson will check to
make sure that the promise will be met and, if not, will notify
the customer of the problem. Good sales follow-up will prevent
the type of situation that occurs so often when the customer calls
on Friday asking, "Where is the delivery truck?" A business
with a reputation for sales follow-up is going to obtain additional
business because of its concern after the sale. Sincere sales
follow-up is good business.
Imagine the impact that can be had on a customer when the carpet
cleaning service telephones the customer 48 hours after cleaning
her carpets to be sure that everything is satisfactory. Sales
follow-up buildings good will and repeat business.
ATTRIBUTES OF A CREATIVE SALESPERSON.
In addition to having personnel who understand and apply the
creative selling process, an organization should try to have salespeople
who possess certain attributes that can make them more effective
in their jobs. These attributes, which can be grouped into mental
and physical categories, merit further discussion.
Judgment. Common sense, maturity, intelligence -- these
and other terms are used interchangeably with judgment. A salesperson
knows that it does not pay to argue with a customer. The salesperson
also knows that the firm should never be "cut" in front
of customers. These situations reflect the use of good judgment
on the part of the employee. Please note that the term maturity
is sometimes used in place of judgment but that it is not necessarily
a function of age.
Tact. If an employee has a keen sense of what to say
and do, many problems can be overcome before they are created.
Many employees give little thought to the impact of their actions.
A child playing with toys in the toy store is told in a blunt
manner to "quit playing with the toys and go find your mother."
While all this is going on, the mother is standing behind the
salesperson. Was a confrontation with the child necessary? No.
Could it have been handled differently? Yes. How does the child
and mother feel about the store? The feeling is not good. This
salesperson lacked the ability to know what to do and say in order
to maintain good customer relations. Be tactful.
Attitude. A good salesperson will have a positive attitude
toward customers, merchandise, services and the business. A good
attitude means that an employee is willing to accept suggestions,
to learn and to apply the steps in the creative selling process,
and to not be afraid of work. A salesperson with a bad attitude
can create unnecessary problems. A bad attitude is contagious.
If any employee is otherwise competent, management should work
with the employee to develop a positive attitude. Positive attitudes
can result in sales.
Selected Physical Attributes. To be a success, the salesperson
must physically belong in the firm's particular environment. Personal
appearance and personal hygiene are important in the selling environment.
IN terms of personal appearance, a slim salesperson would be more
appropriate than a larger person in a sales position at a health
spa. Equally important in terms of personal appearance is a clothing
salesman who wears last year's clothing. He will have difficulty
in selling the latest fashions to his customers. Personal appearance
does count in the selling equation.
As for personal hygiene -- body odor, bad breath, dirty
hair, soiled clothes, scuffed shoes, and unkempt hands are all
reasons why a sale may be lost. Obviously, be tactful when handling
problems of personal hygiene. An observant owner manager should
keep a watchful eye out for hygiene, problems among the staff
and, when necessary, counsel the offending employee in private
about improving his or her appearance. If you don't feel physical
attributes are important, ask yourself if you would like to buy
low-calorie health foods from an overweight salesperson with body
Sound funny? It isn't! Your customers will usually react unfavorably
to this and similar inappropriate selling situations.
Word of Caution. Mental and physical attributes of salespersons
are important. Management must continue to observe sales personnel
in regard to the desired traits. Either mental or physical attributes
of individuals may change over time relative to desired attributes.
Management must be aware of this possibility and attempt to correct
any deviations from desired norms before problems are created.
A business can greatly enhance its probability of success by
stressing the creative selling process, giving special attention
to the desired mental and physical attributes of a creative sales
person. Good creative selling can provide the competitive edge.
APPENDIX: INFORMATION RESOURCES
U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA)
The SBA offers an extensive selection of information on most
business management topics, from how to start a business to exporting
SBA has offices throughout the country. Consult the U.S. Government
section in your telephone directory for the office nearest you.
SBA offers a number of programs and services, including training
and educational programs, counseling services, financial programs
and contract assistance. Ask about
• SCORE: Counselors to America’s Small Business, a national
organization sponsored by SBA of over 11,000 volunteer business
executives who provide free counseling, workshops and seminars
to prospective and existing small business people. Free online
counseling and training at www.score.org.
• Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs), sponsored
by the SBA in partnership with state governments, the educational
community and the private sector. They provide assistance, counseling
and training to prospective and existing business people.
• Women’s Business Centers (WBCs), sponsored by the
SBA in partnership with local non-government organizations across
the nation. Centers are geared specifically to provide training
for women in finance, management, marketing, procurement and
For more information about SBA business development programs
and services call the SBA Small Business Answer Desk at 1-800-U-ASK-SBA
(827-5722) or visit our website, www.sba.gov.
Other U.S. Government Resources
Many publications on business management and other related
topics are available from the Government Printing Office (GPO).
GPO bookstores are located in 24 major cities and are listed in
the Yellow Pages under the bookstore heading. Find a “Catalog
of Government Publications at http://catalog.gpo.gov/F
Many federal agencies offer Websites and publications of interest
to small businesses. There is a nominal fee for some, but most
are free. Below is a selected list of government agencies that
provide publications and other services targeted to small businesses.
To get their publications, contact the regional offices listed
in the telephone directory or write to the addresses below:
Federal Citizen Information Center (FCIC)
The CIO offers a consumer information catalog of federal publications.
Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
Washington, DC 20207
The CPSC offers guidelines for product safety requirements.
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
12th Street and Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20250
The USDA offers publications on selling to the USDA. Publications
and programs on entrepreneurship are also available through county
extension offices nationwide.
U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC)
Office of Business Liaison
14th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20230
DOC's Business Liaison Center provides listings of business
opportunities available in the federal government. This service
also will refer businesses to different programs and services
in the DOC and other federal agencies.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
1 Choke Cherry Road
Rockville, MD 20857
Helpline: 1-800-workplace. Provides information on Employee
Assistance Programs Drug, Alcohol and other Substance Abuse.
U.S. Department of Labor (DOL)
Employment Standards Administration
200 Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20210
The DOL offers publications on compliance with labor laws.
U.S. Department of Treasury
Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
1500 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington DC 20230
The IRS offers information on tax requirements for small businesses.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Small Business Ombudsman
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20480
The EPA offers more than 100 publications designed to help small
businesses understand how they can comply with EPA regulations.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
5600 Fishers Lane
Rockville MD 20857-0001
The FDA offers information on packaging and labeling requirements
for food and food-related products.
For More Information
A librarian can help you locate the specific information you
need in reference books. Most libraries have a variety of directories,
indexes and encyclopedias that cover many business topics. They
also have other resources, such as
• Trade association information
Ask the librarian to show you a directory of trade associations.
Associations provide a valuable network of resources to their
members through publications and services such as newsletters,
conferences and seminars.
Many guidebooks, textbooks and manuals on small business are
published annually. To find the names of books not in your local
library check Books In Print, a directory of books currently
available from publishers.
• Magazine and newspaper articles
Business and professional magazines provide information that
is more current than that found in books and textbooks. There
are a number of indexes to help you find specific articles in
• Internet Search Engines
In addition to books and magazines, many libraries offer free
workshops, free access to computers and the Internet, lend skill-building
tapes and have catalogues and brochures describing continuing
Published - July 2011