Selling: The basics

How you sell your product or service will be influenced by your sales objectives, what you’re selling, who you are selling to and where they are located. However, the basic elements of the sales process apply in most situations.

Guide

17 min read

1. Overview

Marketing activities such as competitor research, customer analysis, pricing, distribution, and advertising often form the foundation that shapes your sales process. But it’s not a linear relationship. The insights gathered during sales from customer feedback are particularly valuable, and should be used to refine ongoing product and service development, pricing strategy, promotion approach, and sales channels, including methods of distribution.

No two businesses will have identical sales processes, as there is wide variation across different products and markets. Where your customers are located, and whether they are individual people (referred to as selling from Business to Consumer - B2C) or organisations (referred to as selling from Business to Business - B2B) will have a big influence. Other elements include whether your product or service is:

  • standard or bespoke (i.e. tailored to a specific customer’s needs)

  • meeting an essential need or a luxury purchase

  • high or low margin

  • a one off purchase or a long term contract

This introduction covers some of the main considerations that apply to any type of selling.

2. Setting sales objectives

There are a number of things you need to consider before you start selling your product or service.

Market share

Market share is the percentage of all sales within a market that is held by one brand/product or company and can be measured in several ways, such as:

  • sales revenue
  • sales volume

You can increase market share by:

  • providing more value for potential customers - eg improving product quality
  • price cutting
  • adding new distribution channels or increasing the intensity of established channels
  • promotion - spending more on advertising

Niches

A niche is a small section of a market that is suitable for a specific range of goods or services that meet a particular need. You can create a niche market by identifying customer needs or wants that are not being addressed by competitors and by offering products to those customers

Marketing strategy

Your business will need a well-developed marketing strategy - this will form part of your overall business plan. For more information, see our guide on writing a marketing plan.

Brand message

Before you begin to sell a product or service, you need to think about what your brand stands for. For more information, see our guide on branding: the basics.

Sale channels

You need to consider which sales channels will work best for your business, ie using face-to-face sales, distance selling, wholesalers or sales agents. For more information, see our guide on sales channels: your options.

3. Sales forecasting

You will need to promote your product or service to encourage sales. Examples include:

  • incentives such as bonus points, vouchers, money-off coupons, competitions and prize draws
  • promotional messages via new media including websites and mobile phones
  • point-of-sale materials and product demonstrations
  • free gifts/samples
  • discounted prices
  • joint promotions
  • fair-trade and cause-related products such as those which help charities
  • finance deals - no or low finance, or buy now pay later

You can also use social media to encourage sales, for example, by running a competition or a discount for a limited time. It is also a way of connecting with and gaining customers' feedback. Read our guide on using social media.

Pricing

There are many ways to price a product, for example:

  • premium pricing - a high price for unique products or services
  • penetration pricing - an artificially low price to gain market share before the price is increased
  • economy pricing - no-frills low price usually associated with economy brands
  • promotional pricing

Field marketing

Field marketing involves getting trained people to conduct research about a specific product or service.

Benefits of field marketing include:

  • face-to-face contact with potential customers
  • marketing campaigns can reach niche markets quickly and effectively
  • field marketing can be supported with other marketing techniques in-store and online
  • brand building - trade shows and events reinforce brand awareness

Merchandising

Merchandising is about how you present your products to potential customers.

You need to understand your potential customer and create:

  • attractive products/services/logo/store front/signs
  • comfortable space to shop or do business in - welcoming, clean interior with good product presentation

4. The customer buying journey and your sales cycle

The customer buying journey and decision process will vary according to who your customers are, what they need or want, and the complexity of the product you are offering.

There are many different ways of expressing this journey. The Chartered Institute of Marketing uses the five-stage model.

  • Awareness - the customer becomes aware of your offering through your marketing activities

  • Consideration - they realise they have a need for what you offer and weigh up the alternatives

  • Purchase - they decide to buy your offering

  • Retention - they make repeat purchases

  • Advocacy - they recommend your offering to others

The stages of the sales cycle complement these, shaping the activities of your sales and marketing staff who aim to encourage and support customers through this journey. For many B2B and complex products, these activities will often be led by individual sales staff. For simpler, high volume products, a lot of this activity will be driven by automated communications, managed by marketing staff.

  • Awareness
    • Identify potential customers and sales leads - otherwise known as “prospecting” or “lead generation” by building your own database or buying a database.

    • Make contact with those prospects by arranging a meeting or marketing to them if you have permission.

  • Consideration
    • Research or qualify leads to encourage the customer to actively consider the offering by speaking to them and understanding their requirements, or by using insights on how they are navigating through your website and responding to emails.

    • Present the offering, respond to any objections - perhaps by demonstrating the product in person or online, providing FAQs, or sharing testimonials.

  • Purchase
    • Negotiate if required, or use time-limited price incentives to close the sale, at which point there is now a sales contract in place.

  • Retention
    • Ensure the customer is satisfied via a follow up phone call or survey, and identify opportunities for upselling, cross selling, or additional purchases of the same item.

  • Loyalty
    • Build a deeper personal relationship and understanding of their needs and trust to the level they feel confident recommending your offering, by staying in touch personally, or using engaging marketing and content to keep your offering front of mind and incentivising referrals.

Your unique process must be based on understanding your customers, including being able to listen and identify their requirements, and building relationships and trust. All staff should have deep knowledge of the product or service, including features and benefits, and how it compares with competitors.

Regulations

You must also comply with various laws and regulations. To secure the reputation of your business, throughout the process - especially when persuading and negotiating with customers - you must act ethically and prevent ambitious targets leading to bullying or sharp practices. Regulators like the ICO issue fines to businesses for spamming people with unsolicited marketing texts and phone calls from databases where people have not provided their consent.

Business to consumer (B2C)

Consumer purchases can be instant impulse purchases with a sales cycle of a few seconds (such as confectionery at a checkout, where pre-existing brand awareness and eye-catching packaging will be the most important elements of your sales process).

For sales that take more time to consider, e.g. clothing or household appliances, you might focus on how they are presented physically or online to support that consideration. This might involve enabling comparison, finding different sizes or models, linking with complementary products, and providing detailed information e.g. fabric composition or maintenance guarantees.

More complex purchases such as cars, kitchens and bathrooms, or holidays, may involve different stakeholders in the family in the decision making, which may take weeks or months. They may have committed to a purchase early on, but negotiating the details will be the key stage of the process to secure a sales conversion. Appealing to the needs of each family member will be important, e.g. child friendly features.

Business to business (B2B)

If you are selling a straightforward item to a small business, such as a photocopier, the customer buying journey may be quite straightforward, taking days or weeks.

In larger organisations or public sector bodies, even fairly simple purchases will probably be covered by some sort of procurement framework, with purchases only made from approved suppliers and you may have to go through a process to become an approved supplier, before you are able to make any sales.

For more complex items, decisions will involve the input from several stakeholders, maybe from different departments. For example, if you are selling an IT system in a healthcare setting, it’s not just the IT department who will be involved. The medical professionals will want to ensure it’s usable, admin staff will need to be confident it fits their requirements, and legal and information governance will want to be sure it’s legally compliant and secure. All this may be overseen by a dedicated procurement department too.

To achieve the support of all departments, you will have to adapt your sales information to suit the needs of the different stakeholders - for example, a medic will not want to trawl through a lot of technical detail. With such a complex purchase, the customer buying journey is likely to take months or even years.

If you are selling to the public sector, you will need to understand the procurement process for different bodies, from Pre-Qualification Questionnaires (PQQ) to Invitations to Tender (ITT), and be registered with the relevant portals that send notifications for public sector contracts.

In Scotland that is the ‘Public Contracts Scotland’ portal.

Adapting your approach

Once you understand the key stages of your customer journey you can align your sales cycle to this and use it to manage your sales pipeline, refining it through ongoing feedback.

You will adapt your approach for new customers compared with existing customers making repeat purchases, and for the different sales channels that you use, especially if you are selling at a distance, face-to-face, or through intermediaries.

5. Customer relationship management systems

A sales contract is an agreement that defines the rights and obligations of both the seller and buyer.

If a customer pays for an item when they buy it, they automatically accept the terms of the sale at the point of purchase. You can display your policies, terms and conditions and warranties on invoices, bills, your website or in your shop.

A sales contract comes into existence when an offer is made and accepted. Unless your terms of trade have been agreed before this, they do not apply. However, anything salespeople have promised is likely to become legally binding if the customer is relying on it, even if it is not in writing.

Unfair trading and consumer protection regulations

You can comply with most sales regulations in one simple step: by avoiding unfair trading and misleading marketing.

Under the Sale of Goods Act, any products you sell must at least:

  • match their description
  • be of satisfactory quality and suitable for their purpose

There are similar requirements that apply to the sales of services.

Other key selling laws

If you sell via the internet, by mail order or telephone, the distance selling regulations will apply. These regulations give consumers some rights to cancel purchases. For more information, see our guide on selling online: the basics.

You should seek legal advice to understand any other regulations that may apply to your particular products or services, eg offering consumer credit and data protection.

You will also need to be aware of any sales contract that you must sign when dealing with suppliers or wholesalers.

Drawing up a sales contract

Your sales contract should reflect particular aspects of your business and have clear terms and conditions, such as:

  • who the contract is between and what is being bought and sold
  • price and payment terms
  • details of any warranties and any buyer or seller obligations

6. Sales promotion and merchandising

A sales forecast is a month-by-month prediction of the level of sales you expect to achieve. Most businesses draw up a sales forecast once a year.

You can ask yourself some questions to help you forecast sales:

  • How many new customers do you gain each year?
  • How many customers do you lose each year?
  • What is the average level of sales you make to each customer?
  • Are there particular months where you gain or lose more customers than usual?

Every year is different, so you need to consider any changing circumstances that could significantly affect your sales. These factors - known as the sales forecast assumptions - form the basis of your forecast.

Typical assumptions include:

  • the market - will your market or market share grow or shrink?
  • your resources - ie will you be changing the number of staff you employ or the amount you spend on advertising?
  • overcoming barriers to sale - ie can improve your sales by changing location or prices?
  • your products - are you planning to launch any new products?

For new businesses, the assumptions need to be based on market research and good judgement.

There is a wide range of sales forecasting that you can use. This software generates forecasts based on historical data. If you are considering buying software, get advice from an IT expert, your trade association, your business advisers or businesses of a similar size and in similar markets.

Common forecasting pitfalls include:

  • being too optimistic - new businesses should avoid working out the level of sales they need for the business to be viable, then putting this figure in as the forecast
  • not making your forecast achievable
  • ignoring your own sales assumptions
  • moving goalposts - make sure your forecast is finalised and agreed within a set timescale
  • not getting feedback - get an accountant or salesperson to review the document

7. Legal considerations and trading standards

Once you have finalised your sales forecast, you can create a sales plan. The questions your sales plan should answer include:

  • What are you going to focus on?
  • What are you going to change?
  • What steps are involved?
  • What territories and targets are you going to give each salesperson or team?

The sales plan will start with some strategic objectives. Here are some examples:

  • break into the local authority market by adapting your product for this market
  • open a shop in an area that you believe has the potential for generating lots of sales
  • boost the average sale per customer

You can then explain the stepping stones that will allow you to achieve these objectives. Use objectives which are SMART - Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound.

Using the example of breaking into the local authority market, your stepping stones might be to:

  • hire a sales person with experience of the local authority market on a basic salary of £24,000 by the beginning of February
  • fully train the sales person by mid April
  • ensure that any changes the product development team has agreed to make are ready to pilot by the beginning of April

As well as planning for new products and new markets, explain how you propose to improve sales and profit margins for your existing products and markets.

Identify how you could remove barriers to sales by:

  • Increasing the activity levels of the sales team - more telephone calls per day, or more customer visits per week?
  • Increasing the conversion rate of calls into sales - through better sales training, better sales support materials or improved sales incentives?

Read our guide Sales channels: your options.

8. Institute of Sales Professionals

The Institute of Sale Professionals is the Government-backed body that represents the sales profession in the UK and abroad, which provides qualifications and accreditation for sales professionals. They offer various resources for sales professionals and being aware of their offering can help you with recruiting, managing, and training your own sales staff.

Read our guide Sales channels: your options.

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