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We are in a war. A war for sales. The battle is almost like hand-to-hand combat because it will be won by selling one customer at a time. To survive in these turbulent economic times, we must win the war for customers; we must be more effective at closing the fewer customers who are looking for our product or service. The game has changed, but the rules of engagement haven’t.

In war, the rules of engagement (ROE) determine when, where and how force shall be used. Such rules are both general and specific. In selling, there are also rules of engagement.

The ROE in selling deal with four issues: when influence may be used; where influence may be used; against whom influence should be used in the circumstances described above; and how selling influence should be used to achieve the desired ends.

The ROE are extremely important because they provide a consistent, understandable and repeatable standard on how salespeople act. Typically, they are carefully thought out in detail, well in advance of an engagement, and may cover a number of scenarios, with different rules for each.

Following these rules of engagement will increase your closing rate and win the war for customers when your competitors are using ineffective strategies.

Show the pearly whites

Greet the customer with a smile within 20 seconds of entering your business. Whether you are busy or not, smile or wave, and acknowledge the customer as she enters the store. Act like you are glad and appreciative that she is there. Remember why customers leave: indifference.

Always make the customer feel in control

Psychologically, this is critical. Feeling manipulated, controlled or coerced, she will leave. Help her feel in control by asking permission to do anything: “May I ask you a few question?” “May I put you on hold?” “Is this a good time to talk?”

She will also feel in control if you give her choices, though not too many: “Based on what you told me, I think there are 4 or 5 products that will work perfectly for you. May I show them to you?”

She will feel in control if you spend more time asking questions and listening rather than telling her what she ought to buy.

Sell her what she wants – not what you want.

Be product neutral. Research shows when salespeople have too few favorite products, they will limit their sales. “The salespeople should be selling you what you want, not what they think you should buy.” Following this rule also makes the customer feel in control.

To the point

Never talk longer than 30 seconds without asking a question. Listening is hard. The best salespeople keep the customer talking by listening and asking questions. If you are talking too much, the customer may not be engaged. A question will keep him focused and talking. The customer feels more in control when he is talking and you are listening.

Spread out

Give the customer space if she desires it. Be aware, watch the customer. If she wants space, give it to her. Let her look. Watch her, she will tell you when she feels safe enough to let you in. While she’s looking, every once in a while, ask her a question, try to engage her. Letting her have space will help her feel in control. Salespeople need to be helpful or suggestive, but not pushy or overpowering. They can’t be bothering the customer too much.

Get inside their heads

Learn your customer’s goals and dreams. Most salespeople don’t ask enough questions. Remember, the customers make three decisions: A fashion decision, a performance decision and a price decision. Which is the most important to them? It depends on the customer. Studies show the more questions asked, the greater the chance of making the sale. It is the most important tool in the salespersons’ toolbox.

Do due diligence

Never make the presentation before the engaging enquiry. Another big mistake salespeople make is to start presenting the product or service before they understand what the customer wants. The customer may say, “I’d like to see a particular item.” Most salespeople would say, “Sure, come over here and I’ll show you the ones we have on special.” Instead, the salesperson should say, “To help me understand, tell me why that particular item is important to you.”


Never answer an unasked question. Many salespeople can’t resist telling the customer everything they know about their product. More times than not, this causes cognitive dissonance or confusion. Confused customers can’t make decisions. It will cause them to postpone their purchase and leave. Listen carefully and be aware. Tell the customer only what she needs to know in order to make her decision.

Secure a lead

Ask the customer for her name and address. What do you call a customer who walks in your store? A qualified lead. If you let her leave the store without buying and without getting her name and address, you have struck out.

With her name and address, you have a way to maintain contact and follow-up. Your business needs a systemized follow-up program for those customers who aren’t ready to buy on the first visit. How do you get her name? You ask. “Mrs. Smith, if I think of something that you might like or something goes on special, may I let you know? Would it be okay if I got your name and address?”

Be unforgettable

Make each customer experience remarkable. And make sure it’s “good remarkable,” in a way that the customer will want to tell others. The experience is everything. If you were patient, you asked good questions, you focused on his needs, you built value, you sold him the right product, and the experience hassle-free, and he feels you really care, then he will want to tell his colleagues and friends. You’ve made the experience remarkable. You don’t manage the sale; you manage the relationship.

In selling and in war, it is winner-take-all. Yes, times are tough; there are fewer customers. But what does that mean? It simply means we have to get better; we have to close more. If you close just one more person out of ten, and you are an average closer, that will give you a 33 percent increase in sales. If you follow the Rules of Engagement, one more out of 10 is easy. Will you let them work for you?

A consultant, speaker and author, Sam Allman, is the CEO of Allman Consulting and Training.