In this article, we’re focusing on “conceptual selling,” an interesting and somewhat surreal approach to selling that can help you win more deals.
So what is conceptual selling and how do you use it?
Table of Contents
- What is Conceptual Selling?
- The Key Concepts of Conceptual Selling
- The Benefits of Conceptual Selling
- Who is Conceptual Selling Right For?
- 1. Keep things simple.
- 2. Take the time to prepare.
- 3. Truly listen.
- 4. Align seller and buyer objections.
- 5. Make it personal.
- 6. Tap into emotions.
- 7. Be in charge of the meeting.
- 8. Use your time wisely.
- 9. Differentiate yourself.
- 10. Take intangibles and make them tangible.
- 11. Measure everything.
- 12. Foster the relationship.
- 21 Examples of Conceptual Selling in Action
What is Conceptual Selling?
Did you ever see Pulp Fiction?
In the movie, the characters Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield are tasked with retrieving a briefcase, which has an eerie, golden glow when opened – though we never actually see what’s inside. Frequently, we the audience are told that whatever’s in this briefcase is of the utmost importance.
But what is it?
In the film industry, this is what’s known as a MacGuffin – according to Wikipedia, “an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself.”
In other words, the concept is more important than the object itself. It doesn’t matter what’s in the briefcase. What matters is that it’s desired. That it’s important.
In conceptual selling, you’re going to make your product a kind of MacGuffin. During your pitch, you’re going to focus on the concept of the product, rather than the product itself.
You’re going to explain why it’s important and why it’s desirable – without going into much detail about its core features.
This is just my take on the subject matter. Pulp Fiction is not mentioned in The New Conceptual Selling, the latest book by the inventors of the methodology, Robert B. Miller and Stephen Heiman.
I encourage you to read the book in its entirety for a full outline and deep dive into the methodology. Much of this article is focused on my personal takeaways.
The Key Concepts of Conceptual Selling
It’s easier to explain conceptual selling in terms of its core elements:
1. The concept, not the product.
In conceptual selling, you focus on the “concept” of the product, rather than the product itself.
For example, look at this butter knife. It’s made of stainless steel. It’s lightweight, yet durable.
It’s dishwasher safe and it comes with a lifetime warranty.
Want to buy it?
Probably not. All you’re doing is describing an object that exists.
Now, imagine you’re sitting down to have a piece of toast.
Do you just smear the stick of butter on the bread? Or would it be easier to have some kind of utensil to easily cut a pad of butter from the stick – and then use that same tool to spread it across the toast itself.
You’d need something flat, durable, and sharp (without being too sharp) to do that.
This is the “concept” of a butter knife. And yes, it seems a bit ridiculous with this kind of example.
But it’s much more effective when you’re using it to pitch a service or something abstract.
2. The two processes.
Conceptual selling outlines two important processes that happen leading up to the sale. First, there’s the sales process.
This is what most salespeople know intimately well. They have a set process for reaching out to a new prospect, engaging with them, and guiding them to a sale.
This is all well and good, but it neglects the other process occurring simultaneously: the buying process.
The buying process is what a prospect follows on their journey to become a customer. They evaluate their current needs, prepare a budget, research competitors, and try to figure out the best solution.
This is all happening simultaneously as you’re jumping through sales hoops.
The best way to land a sale is to understand and follow both these methodologies. You have to relate to your customer, understand what they’re searching for, and find a way to align your interests.
3. The “win-win” scenario.
Conceptual selling prioritizes a “win-win” scenario mentality.
In some sales methodologies, selling someone is about persuading them. Or it’s about dominating them – it’s about “winning the battle.”
But this isn’t the case with conceptual selling. Instead, this approach recognizes that both the seller and the buyer have motivations and interests – and there’s a compromise or approach that will work for both of them.
It’s your job as a salesperson to figure out what this “win-win” scenario is and how to achieve it.
4. The rejection of “one size fits all.”
Conceptual selling also rejects the notion of a “one size fits all” solution. Even if you have a static product that never changes and can’t be customized, it’s going to mean different things to different people.
A butter knife can be used to butter toast, sure, but it can also be used to cut pastries or, in a pinch, as a makeshift screwdriver. It can even be a collectible, or a decoration.
Understanding the subjective nature of a customer’s decision will help you tailor your approach to your target prospect.
5. A simple, repeatable process.
For the sake of efficiency (and your own personal sanity), it pays to have a simple, repeatable process tied to your conceptual selling approach.
In other words, what’s your workflow for reaching out to prospects and following up? How do you practice research and discovery? How and when do you make the pitch?
These all need to be defined and documented – then practiced consistently throughout the team.
The Benefits of Conceptual Selling
Why would you use conceptual selling over another sales methodology?
These are some of the benefits:
- Higher close rates.
- Shorter sales cycles.
- Better customer relationships.
- Greater knowledge.
- Higher average deal size.
- Higher efficiency.
Of course, many sales methodologies purport to have similar benefits. You’ll need to consider whether conceptual selling “fits” your business before adopting it.
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Who is Conceptual Selling Right For?
Some businesses stand to benefit from conceptual selling more than others.
- Services vs. products. Conceptual selling is especially powerful for selling services and other abstractions, since it’s sometimes hard to describe the “product” itself. That’s not to say tangible products can’t be sold with conceptual selling, but services do have the edge.
- B2B vs. B2C. B2C businesses tend to work faster and reach wider audiences, while B2B companies focus on customer relationships and longer decision cycles; accordingly, conceptual selling is more widely adopted by B2B companies.
- Buying cycles and customer lifetime value. Conceptual selling works best when you’re trying to establish positive long-term relationships with customers who stand to yield value for a long time. Remember, you’re trying to understand your customers well and find win-win scenarios; if your customer lifetime value is low, or if buying cycles are much shorter, it may not be worth the extra effort.
Best Practices in Conceptual Selling
If you decide to follow conceptual selling in your business, there are a variety of “best practices” you can follow to boost your results:
1. Keep things simple.
Yes, there are multiple books written on conceptual selling. And if you talk to certain sales managers, they’ll preach about the importance of nailing down the “perfect” process.
But since conceptual selling deals with abstractions and relationships, simpler is often better. Create a loose framework, master the basics, and try not to go off the deep end.
2. Take the time to prepare.
Take your leads and prospects seriously. Before heading into a meeting with a new potential customer, get to know them.
Figure out who they are, what their background is, what their role is, and what the company overall is like.
You’ll be much better equipped to understand their buying process – and find a win-win scenario.
3. Truly listen.
Don’t just talk. Ask lots of questions. Figure out who you’re dealing with and discover what kind of concept they’re likely to buy.
4. Align seller and buyer objections.
Focus on the two processes occurring simultaneously: your selling process as well as the buyer’s buying process.
Your goal is to align yourselves, so you can meet in the middle with a deal that works out for you both. What kind of transaction would make both of you happy?
5. Make it personal.
Most of the time, you’re better off keeping sales impersonal; it certainly makes rejection easier to handle. But with conceptual selling, you should make it a little personal.
Get to know your prospects and build relationships with them; they’ll be much more likely to trust your recommendations and truly work with you.
6. Tap into emotions.
Similarly, consider tapping into your prospect’s emotions to make a better case for your conceptual product.
For example, can your services give your prospect more peace of mind? Can it give them a sense of relief?
7. Be in charge of the meeting.
When meeting with prospects, it’s important to remain in control and in charge. Control the narrative and the flow of conversation (without simply talking over everyone).
You can do this by doing your research and planning the meeting proactively, preparing for every possible turn.
8. Use your time wisely.
Conceptual selling is a system focused not just on bottom-line results, but also sales efficiency.
It’s important to communicate clearly and concisely, to make the most of your meetings, and to use your downtime wisely.
9. Differentiate yourself.
Okay, sales guy. I’ve seen three separate pitches for products like yours. Why should I listen to you?
Conceptual selling provides you with an easy opportunity to frame your product/service in an interesting new light – take advantage of it!
10. Take intangibles and make them tangible.
If you’re like most businesses, at least some of your products and services have “intangible” features. Try to find a way to make them tangible.
What are the bottom-line cost savings? How will these features make your customers feel? What’s the real, measurable impact?
11. Measure everything.
Okay, to be fair, this can be applied to literally any sales methodology. But that doesn’t make it any less important!
Measure everything you can and analyze your results relentlessly; identify weak points to improve and strengths to reinforce.
12. Foster the relationship.
It’s not just about selling a product. It’s also about building a relationship.
Always treat your customers like they’re about to be lifetime partners; it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy if you keep their best interests (and their buying process) in mind.
21 Examples of Conceptual Selling in Action
Now let’s take a look at some examples of conceptual selling in action.
Like many sales methodologies, conceptual selling relies on listening more than speaking – so you’ll be spending a lot of time asking sales discovery questions and open-ended sales questions that guide your prospect to an eventual sale.
Discovery and Confirmation Questions
You’ll lead with discovery questions, like these:
- How much time do you spend on X?
- How much money do you spend on X?
- How long have you been in the business?
- What are your goals this quarter/year?
- Who are your key decision makers?
Next, you’ll need to ask some questions to figure out what the core problems or issues are for this prospect. What are the main obstacles holding them back from getting the results they want?
- Who is your biggest competitor and why are they a problem?
- How much time/money are you wasting on X?
- What’s your biggest challenge in achieving X?
- What’s stopping you from achieving higher efficiency?
- What do you need to expand your capabilities?
- How did you get into this position?
Find out more about your prospect’s disposition and what their decision process is like. Here, you’ll be able to identify the key objections that might hold up the sale – and possibly address them proactively.
- How would you feel about using a new product for X?
- Are you open to collaborations?
- What would you do with an extra X hours each week?
- What’s your budget for X?
- How quickly can your organization make a change?
- What’s your biggest apprehension about moving forward?
And finally, you’ll work your way to commitment questions. You’re almost home free; these are the questions that will allow you to seal the deal.
- When will you be able to make a decision?
- How much is a solution worth to you?
- What information do you need to make a decision?
- Who needs to be convinced that this is the right solution?
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Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before selling it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics.