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Sales 101: Triage of a Sales Encounter

Updated on October 23, 2014

Like a surgeon

No operating without triage!
No operating without triage! | Source

No doctorate required

It doesn’t take an M.D. to determine a buyer’s needs; however, triage is a method that all salespeople should master in order to get down to what the buyer really wants. Just as a good doc asks questions for diagnosing a patient’s ills, a good salesperson should learn to do the same. The difference between wants and needs is in many cases a gulf wider than the Grand Canyon. Use triage to get to the practical details of any sales situation. Once you discover a buyer’s true wants, the closing of the sale is in sight.

By definition, triage is a three-part system of prioritizing: (1) questions easily answered, (2) questions where the answers are uncertain, and (3) questions that stump you. Used on the battlefield to ascertain the chances of survival of wounded soldiers, this method can apply to the chances of a salesperson surviving a sales encounter too.

First step

The first step toward closing a sale is to determine if a potential customer is qualified to buy a particular product or product line. Skipping this step makes all further sales approaches to this prospect a waste of valuable sales time. After all, why make a sales call on someone who doesn’t have the authority to purchase the product, or has no need of the product at all? When frankly stated, the question begs a direct answer, “Do you purchase this type of product?” The answer determines the next step in the sales approach. In some cases, a salesperson can answer this question by doing a bit of research before even making the first sales attempt. It depends on the type of product. For instance, almost everyone purchases toilet tissue; few purchase anchovies.

Next step

Once the customer has been qualified, it is necessary to sort him or her into one of three categories: highly interested (a live one), mildly interested (will survive with a little mending), not interested (DOA). The answer helps determine the best sales approach for a particular situation. For someone who dearly loves to eat anchovies, the decision to purchase might be influenced by availability. If the potential buyer only enjoys anchovies occasionally, price may influence the sale. For someone who hates to eat anchovies, no price, quantity or service level will change the negative outcome of the sales call. Qualify the customer; proceed to the Big Six for the drill-down.

The Big Six Triage Questions
The Big Six Triage Questions

Getting to the Big Six

Asking the Big Six questions (who, what, when, where, why, and how) to glean information is key to a triage sales process. These types of questions help zero in on what a buyer really wants. Modify the following examples to meet the needs of any sales presentation:

  1. Who will eat the anchovies? “About one-third of our pizza customers like them – somewhere around sixty people each day.” [Translation: high usage.]
  2. What quantities of anchovies are required? “We purchase several ten-pound cans per month.” [Translation: an open door invitation to sell.]
  3. When do you need the anchovies? “Usually our lunch buffet pizza clients eat the most. We end up having to place a reorder about Wednesday every week.” [Translation: weekly delivery may be required.]
  4. Where do you use the anchovies? “Well, we have seven locations around the Upstate, so every store will place orders for the little fishes each week.” [Translation: quantity purchasing might deserve a price break.]
  5. Why are the anchovies needed? “This topping is fairly popular with our clientele. We can’t purchase too far ahead because we don’t want them to spoil, but we can’t run out of them either.” [Translation: expects top service.]
  6. How will you pay for the anchovies? “Cash, of course.” [Translation: I take no chances on running out of this product, so give me what I want and I’ll buy from you.]

Keep in mind that each of these questions may beg other questions until the salesperson is confident that he or she has gotten down to what the customer really wants. In the above example, the customer says that he needs a quantity of about twenty pounds of anchovies per seven pizza stores around the middle of each week. He also states that he cannot run out of stock and will pay cash to insure that doesn’t happen. The salesperson should gather that availability is the key issue for this buyer – not the price of the anchovies! While pricing is yet to come, shifting the focus of conversation to service and delivery would be a wise move. Those are what the buyer really wants!

Give buyers what they want

Asking the right questions in a planned order, categorizing the answers using a triage method, and extrapolating the results to determine what the customer truly wants are the job of a salesperson. This takes patience, listening and thought – mostly listening. Salespeople that simply run their mouths rather than sticking to triage are not in front of the customer to sell, they like to hear themselves talk. Talk is cheap. Talk is easy. Talk wastes sales time. Triage gets to the nitty-gritty of what a buyer really wants, while talk is just that – talk. Rather than falling into the “No Sale” chasm, experience a dramatic increase in sales totals by using the triage method to tailor presentations and products to a customer's wants and desires instead of your own.


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