To succeed in material handling or capital equipment selling requires the development of skills, techniques and knowledge in 6 key areas:


This is the most traditional sales knowledge for material handling equipment salespeople. It involves models, features, application information, specifications, competitive comparisons and details about “the stuff.” The danger here is that salespeople sometimes believe product knowledge does the selling. “This stuff sells itself” becomes the cry of some salespeople when new models are introduced with the latest features. No it doesn’t. Product knowledge is only the basic starting point for material handling salespeople. Providing product knowledge training is primarily the responsibility of manufacturers and suppliers of the equipment.


Managing time and organising to sell are critical skills. Many companies incorporate time & organisational tools with database management, customer relationship management (CRM) systems, master calendaring and other systems. As such, salespeople should coordinate their training in this area with their employer, whilst at the same time develop and follow their own personal plans, usually based on a sales target and the activities required to achieve and exceed that target.


In material handling, the success of the salesperson is tied closely to how well he utilises the resources of his own employer. Time should be spent understanding the employer’s strengths, procedures, working relationships, customer service response mechanisms and more. Material handling salespeople need to know who they can go to in their own organisation to get things done, to get pricing on specials, obtain information for proposals, process orders, expedite orders, solve customer service issues, get IT help, etc.


Material handling salespeople must quickly become competent and fluent in all relevant technologies that apply to their specific sales situation. This can include laptops, voicemail, email, online training, digital order processing, calendaring, database management, customer relationship management (CRM), product configurators, online order status reports & management, business system interfaces and supplier & customer electronic interfaces.


Material handling salespeople must orient themselves to the “who and where” of the customers most likely to be high-potential prospects for their products and services. Questions to be answered include:

  • Which personnel should be targeted for initial approach?
  • What is the physical industrial geography of the assigned area of responsibility?
  • What customer & prospect history & database information already exists?

In other words, salespeople must be able to know where to get answers to the big question “Who and where are all the customers?”


This is training in “what it takes” to create sales in the material handling or capital equipment environment.

Selling is a profession. As with other professions, there is a body of knowledge that forms the structure of techniques and skills that are most effective. These skills and techniques are practised in customised ways by individuals with differing levels of effectiveness based on:

  • Their knowledge and practice of these skills and techniques
  • The unique talents they bring to the profession
  • Their circumstances
  • Their work ethic

One method of providing the structure to help sales professionals develop their sales skills and techniques in an organised manner is to consistently work with a sales model. Sales models include:

  • An understanding of the characteristics of a specific sales situation. In this instance, business-to-business sales of capital equipment or material handling equipment
  • A sales philosophy. Examples could include “Nobody beats our price” or “Our products are the best, the BMW of the industry” or “An appropriate sales model has ‘The Customer’ as its focus”
  • Consistent sales approach
  • Good sales language
  • A memory tool such as a diagram showing a clear sales process flow
  • Sales techniques & tools effective in specific sales environments

Following a sales model specifically helps capital equipment sales professionals identify, learn and practise key skills and techniques for their unique sales environment, that is, the business-to-business selling of capital equipment.


Salespeople often make, and repeat, common mistakes which cost them sales. Moreover, having obtained the sale, these mistakes cost them gross margin. Loss of sales or reduced gross margin means less income for both the salesperson and the company.

This report lists salespeople’s most common, costly, sales mistakes.


Perhaps the most common stereotype of salespeople is “fast talkers with the gift of the gab.” This is because many salespeople do talk too much. Dominating the conversation gives the impression that salespeople believe they can use words to bludgeon the customer into buying from them. Or, perhaps they can “persuade” the customer with their product’s features & benefits and superior logic.


Even when salespeople finally stop talking, they don’t always start listening. Often, they just stop and wait their turn to talk again. Yet, with the right questions from the salesperson, customers will tell salespeople how to sell to them, but only if the salespeople are listening; actively listening.

Taking notes is one technique of active listening; another is restating in their own words what they thought they heard the customer say: “As I understand it….” Salespeople should examine their practices and determine if they are really listening, or simply not talking.


Business customers aren’t buying features. They are buying a means of reaching their objectives, or, in other words, solutions to problems. Product features only mean something to a customer when they directly address an objective or need which the customer acknowledges.


Materials handling equipment salespeople often sell tangible, physical items. As such, they have access to lots of brochures filled with pictures, cut-away drawings and specifications. And salespeople love to hand, or mail or email, a brochure to customers, early and often. Yet brochures don’t sell anything. In fact, the easiest way to get rid of a salesperson is to say “Give me a brochure and I’ll look at it and get back to you.” It is hard to picture a customer poring over a brochure, then suddenly and excitedly calling to say “Wow, great brochure. I’ll take that!”


Customers want to talk price. Early in the sales process they ask questions like “What’s your ballpark price?” Salespeople often respond with numbers before they know enough to give a realistic estimate. And whatever price given will be the highest price the customer will ever want to pay. How can the salesperson give a price when they don’t know the client’s story? Don’t give a price until you have:

  • Asked questions
  • Listened
  • Understood their needs
  • Developed the relationship


Another question seemingly programmed into every customer’s DNA is some form of “What’s your delivery?” The salesperson’s reaction all too often is to blurt out what is really just a “guesstimate”. Better to defer answering this question until closer to the time of placing the order when a more precise reply can be given. What is more, this question can be effectively used to move a customer closer to actual commitment, as delivery times usually depend on when the order is placed.


When salespeople give customers proposals (all too often called “quotes” or “bids”), the customer almost immediately goes to “the price.” And when the customer hears “the price,” the selling stops. The customer mentally compares the price to budgets, previous purchases, decision criteria and competitors’ prices. Anything except focusing on the fact that the salesperson’s proposal will help them meet their objectives.


Email, text messaging, voicemail, instant messaging, website response mechanisms, video conferencing, webinars…they all save time, are relatively inexpensive and seem so convenient. Customers not only hide behind them, they often encourage their use in place of real human contact such as phone conversations and personal meetings. The problem with electronic communication methods is they are, well, electronic. This means they are often impersonal, inhibit the kind of personal contact that builds relationships and don’t easily allow the reading of a customer’s reactions.


It’s easy to take customers for granted, particularly when your product and company are in their automatic reorder programme and the orders keep on coming. Then, something changes (and in materials handling equipment, things are always changing) such as pricing, delivery, specifications, supervisors or competition and the orders dry up. And without a well-maintained relationship, there is no warning.


A natural request of a customer when considering something new is:

  • “Can we see one?”
  • “Can we try it out?”
  • “Can we visit an operation where it’s in use?”

And a natural response for the salesperson is “Sure!” Salespeople often beat customers to the punch, offering a sample, demonstration or site visit even before the customer asks for one. These seem to be variations on the old sales technique, the “Puppy Dog Close”. Once they touch it and pet it, how can they send it back? Well, they can. And often do. The list of factors causing ineffective use of samples, demonstrations, videos and site visits is long. These can indeed be effective tools for materials handling equipment salespeople. However, this requires strict control, with a focus on clear customer objectives & parameters, with the right people present, showing exactly the right items and conducted at the most appropriate, pivotal time in the sales process.


We’ve seen some of the most common, costly, repeated mistakes that materials handling equipment salespeople make. Objective Based Selling gives salespeople the tools & techniques to encourage customers to talk, effectively telling YOU how to sell your company’s products or services to them.


Salespeople are most effective when they understand and can articulate “what’s really happening” in specific sales situations and take actions most likely to lead to a profitable sale. This report describes characteristics of the material handling sales environment, along with a brief discussion of implications for the salesperson’s preferred actions.


Material handling sales of consequence almost always involve more than one decision influencer. Generally, the larger the project or the more complex the organisation the salesperson is dealing with, the more people involved in the decision. Knowing this “going in” alerts the salesperson to pay attention to everyone they meet, to look for opportunities to meet more people, to ask questions to identify decision influencers and the roles they play. In smaller companies, salespeople may be dealing with owners who seem to have discretionary decision-making power, however, even owners usually get input from others.


No matter how skilled, salespeople often fail to identify all the decision influencers. Material handling salespeople must assume there are “hidden” decision influencers in every large project, creating the challenge of “selling” to influencers who cannot be identified or met. There are two effective ways of doing this:

  • Via the written proposal document, which communicates to those decision influencers salespeople can’t meet
  • Through the salesperson’s “advocate”, the salesperson’s primary contact, with whom a personal, professional relationship has been developed and who believes his company should act on the salesperson’s proposal


Organisations erect barriers to decision influencers. Barriers include phone systems such as voice mail, gatekeepers, national contracts and a simple refusal to see salespeople. This places a premium on communication and relationship-building skills when a salesperson is able to make personal contact. It also increases the importance of effective written (email and paper) communication, particularly the proposal document. While the salesperson must aim for the opportunity to personally review the proposal with decision influencers, this can’t always be relied upon.


Traditional sales training often emphasises “on the spot” closing techniques. This is most often not the case with material handling projects of consequence, due to:

  • Multiple and hidden decision influencers
  • Complex corporate structures and decision criteria
  • The size of many transactions
  • The impact these decisions may have on customer operations
  • Simple reluctance of many people to act “under pressure” from a salesperson

When salespeople are precluded from closing in person, they must develop written proposals which sell when they can’t be there and have relationships with customer advocates who will make their case.


Material handling equipment is most often purchased from the capital equipment budget. Inevitably, there are more requests to use these funds than funds actually available (hence the term “wish lists”). In many material handling projects, the case must be made that doing your project is more valuable to the customer than other identified needs. To help their project effectively compete for funds, the salesperson must understand:

  • The customer’s objectives for the project
  • The financial return to the customer
  • Why it’s important for the customer’s operations that the project is done

This must be communicated to multiple, including hidden, decision influencers via the written proposal and the salesperson’s advocate.


The major competition for many material handling projects is simply to do nothing. If projects don’t meet internal financial criteria, or don’t have a persuasive advocate, they are often simply dropped. To avoid this, salespeople must be strong at qualifying projects, so they avoid investing time in projects that don’t make sense and aren’t really going to happen. It also means they must develop skills to learn a customer’s internal criteria for implementing projects, including financial.


In material handling projects, the time from initial sales contact to actual purchase can typically range from one month to over a year, so understanding the customer’s “pace” in a project is key. As weeks and months go by, there may be changes to customer decision influencers, priorities, application parameters and budgets. There may also be changes in things such as the models, brands, specifications and lead times of products being offered by the salesperson. Personal relationships and questioning skills are critical to dealing with changes over extended-time sales cycles.


Most material handling projects involve highly significant budgets and complex purchasing processes with higher levels of scrutiny than smaller purchases. Higher value projects mean more, and higher, levels of decision influencers, longer time cycles and more competition for funds.


Changes to company operations are often large projects with high visibility. The outcome of the project may advance or hinder the customer champion’s career. When such career decisions are being made, one key element usually trumps all others: trust. If the salesperson cannot build trust that the project will succeed and reflect positively on the champion or the company owner, they are unlikely to get the business.


As more corporate mergers happen and more purchasing control is centralised, many of the characteristics listed above are exaggerated. There are more decision influencers, many of them hidden, with more scrutiny and competition for funds. Not only does this increase the importance of the written proposal document, but skills such as the ability to find alliance partners, in either the purchasing location or the using location, come into play.


There was a time in material handling sales, particularly sales of forklift trucks, where brands drove decisions. Decision criteria are now more often driven by internal financial considerations; real, hard objectives to be accomplished and multiple, hidden decision influencers who have no brand allegiance. Sales skills in dealing with these situations are now more valuable than “What brand are you selling?”


There are almost always multiple, alternative methods & equipment to accomplish customer objectives, such as used versus new equipment, or cash versus financed purchase or contract hire. To deal with this, material handling salespeople must be skilled in helping customers negotiate priorities, uncover parameters and make decisions. Salespeople should be ready to offer alternative solutions, at different price points, so that customers are choosing between two of their solutions, not theirs and a competitor’s.


Material handling is a “boutique” industry with its own jargon and assumptions. Compared with Information Technology (IT), material handling is only semi-technical. However, as IT solutions are increasingly incorporated into material handling, so it is becoming increasingly more technical. Salespeople must be careful not to use “insider” or “technical” jargon which loses the customer. Salespeople must be sure all terms used are fully understood without being condescending. This is particularly important when dealing with equipment specifications, or customer parameters, on which orders will be placed. In other words; speak their language!


The characteristics discussed in this Blog help define the sales environment within which the material handling salesperson operates. Objective Based Selling was designed specifically to provide the material handling salesperson with the tools and techniques to be effective in this environment.


Selling involves verbal and written communication. Use of the right language can help create a positive selling environment both for the salesperson and for the customer. For example, price and cost indicate issues which are basically negative. As such, their use should be minimized. On the other hand, investment indicates the positive effect on a business through the use of improved equipment or services that offer a return or pay for themselves.

Below are fourteen more terms we recommend to help create a positive sales environment, versus the more commonly used, poorer alternatives.

1. OBJECTIVES v Problems

Many sales models talk of “problem solving selling” and encourage salespeople to help customers identify and “solve” problems. However, a more positive activity in many situations is to help customers meet objectives rather than simply overcome problems.


Advice for salespeople used to go like this: “Find the decision-maker and focus your attention on him.” The materials handling equipment sales environment almost always involves multiple decision influencers, not just one decision-maker. The more decision influencers a salesperson meets, the better the frame of reference for deciding who is more influential.

3. CUSTOMER PARAMETERS v Specifications

Salespeople love to talk about the specifications or spec of products. It is much better to focus on identifying the critical parameters relating to the customer’s needs or objectives. Customers constantly hear salespeople use the wording “specification/spec” so they take extra notice when a salesperson uses the much less commonly used “parameters”!

4. TIME FRAME v “When do you need delivery?”

A discussion of time frames with customers such as “What is your time frame for reaching a decision on this project?” is a more professional discussion than the commonly used “When do you need delivery?”


In materials handling equipment projects the word budget usually crops up. This word is restrictive as it implies price is the sole or most important issue in the project. It is therefore more effective to ask “What are the financial considerations in this project?” This encourages the customer to talk more broadly about money, rather than just its constraint.

6. PROPOSAL v Bid or Quote

A bid or a quote is merely a number where the lowest bid wins. It is not to the benefit of the salesperson to give the impression his products or services are commodities as this implies price is the only issue of importance. Instead, salespeople should present customers with a Sales Proposal which involves multiple factors that outline how their offering and business methods help the customer meet their objectives. Remember, a quote is just an expense whereas a proposal indicates investment.

7. REVIEW v Presentation or Sales Pitch

When customers hear the term presentation, they think a mind-numbing, self-promoting sales pitch. As such, rather than asking to “make a presentation”, instead ask to “review the proposal or project” with the decision influencers.


The meeting where decision influencers meet with the salesperson is the “scrum or review meeting.” Just like a rugby scrum, there is initial confusion and infighting before a leader emerges with the ball and everyone follows in that direction. This is a good analogy for the scrum meeting that skilled salespeople need to initiate and facilitate with their customers.

9. PROJECT v Equipment Purchase

The word project elevates a purchase from a simple price-based transaction to a situation requiring more study, professional expertise and attention. Use of the term project helps the primary customer contact compete for funds with other projects or purchases in their company. A further effective tool is to give it a customer-focused project name, instead of a product-focused name. To review examples of these names go to the OBS sales language full report.

10. INCLUSIVE ‘WE’ v adversarial ‘You’

The most favourable position for a professional salesperson to be is on the same team as the customer, helping achieve their objectives. As early on in the relationship as appropriate or comfortable, salespeople should begin using the inclusive we or our. However, these phrases may not be appropriate in an initial meeting with a customer. This might imply a relationship that doesn’t yet exist and be perceived as presumptuous. Exercise considered judgement.

11. GROSS MARGIN v Mark-Up

These are terms regarding pricing, which are not usually used with the customer in the room. They are terms used by salespeople and their companies as pricing strategies are managed. While both are often used, they are not the same because the maths is different. To understand the difference and how it effects project profitability, download the full report on OBS sales language.

12. MATRIX v Spreadsheet

One way customers, especially CFOs, deal with multiple factors in a decision is to create spreadsheets. The problem for the salesperson is that these can lure a customer into thinking that it’s only the numbers on the spreadsheet that matter. When presenting customers with a solution or proposal, salespeople are encouraged to use the term matrix. It is less common, will stand out and can more naturally incorporate factors other than pricing and specifications.

13. NO LATER THAN v As Soon As Possible

A common expression used by salespeople is “I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.” What does that actually mean? Different things to different people for sure. The salesperson instead should say “I will get back to you no later than 4pm tomorrow afternoon. Does that work for you?” or something similar. By stating a specific time frame and asking for customer agreement, misunderstandings can be reduced and salespeople look more professional.

14. AGREEMENT v Contract

When we consider the term Contract we think of a legal, formal document, with lots of Terms & Conditions, that we should think very carefully about before signing. On the other hand, the term Agreement is much less formal, is softer and implies its content is the result of multiple parties being satisfied with the content and are therefore in Agreement.


The essentials of a capital equipment sales model are embodied in The Four Keys To Objective Based Selling:

  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Build personal, professional relationships
  • Design customer-focused proposals
  • Follow the Objective Based Selling diagram


Asking questions, or what our industry calls “open ended questions”, that is, questions that get the customer talking, is the key to understanding a customer’s needs and objectives while helping the salesperson to:

  • Prospect and qualify prospects
  • Encourage the customer to talk about their company’s objectives, operational situation, purchasing procedures & criteria, decision influencers and personal objectives
  • Understand the customer’s situation in order to make responsive recommendations
  • Create forward motion in the sales process
  • Build trust and rapport with the customer
  • Perform critical sales functions for the customer


While many forces in today’s material handling sales environment are pushing toward depersonalisation, ultimately all purchasing decisions are emotional and made by people. People are still buying from other people; even if they use computers and formal contracts to do so.

The larger the project and the more critical the purchase is to the customer, the more important it is for the material handling salesperson to establish a personal, professional relationship with the key decision influencers. These relationships provide:

  • Access to other decision influencers
  • Information leading to responsive recommendations which are customised to the customer’s objectives & parameters
  • Opportunities to build trust
  • A better understanding of the customer’s decision-making criteria and process
  • Coaching for the salesperson in how to take care of the customer
  • The opportunity to provide a modified, more targeted proposal at the time the customer is actually ready to act. Sometimes referred to as the “second chance”
  • An early warning of the need (and the opportunity) to react, adjust and recover during the implementation phase of a project if things are not progressing as planned

Personal, professional relationships are vitally important in the sales process. When business and personal objectives are in conflict, personal objectives always win. How responsive the salesperson’s proposal is to customer objectives or how attractive the price is or how strong the salesperson’s proposal is becomes irrelevant if the customer does not like, believe, understand and trust the salesperson and his company. The customer finds a way to purchase elsewhere.


All significant material handling purchases involve a written proposal, whether paper, electronic or both, before the customer makes a commitment. Most proposals by material handling salespeople have two critical flaws:

  • Primarily focusing on the equipment or service methods. In the extreme, many material handling proposals are simply a listing of equipment specifications with a quoted price and delivery statement. Not selling, just quoting.
  • No reference to the customer’s objectives & parameters. As such, there is no indication that the salesperson even understands the customer’s objectives & parameters, let alone took them into consideration when creating the proposal. Without these particulars, there is no indication that acting on this proposal will enable the customer to achieve their objectives. It is merely another equipment quote, of which the lowest quote wins the order. Alternatively, the project dies due to ineffectively competing for funds.

In other words, most material handling equipment and service proposals quote rather than sell.


The diagram is a visual representation of the Four Keys to OBJECTIVE BASED SELLING.

The basic concept of Objective Based Selling is that customers make material handling purchase decisions, for both business and personal reasons, to accomplish both business and personal objectives.

Consequently, the task of the material handling salesperson is to determine both the customer’s business and personal objectives. Secondly, the salesperson needs to fully reassure the customer that they can accomplish these objectives by acting on the written, customer-focused proposal.


Open-ended questions are the most powerful tool available to the material handling salesperson. Their effective use:

  • Focuses the conversation on the client
  • Encourages clients to talk about themselves and their operations
  • Helps the salesperson control how much they themselves talk
  • Controls conversations
  • Demonstrates genuine interest in the client
  • Helps the salesperson learn about the client’s operation

In the Objective Based Selling model, focusing on the questions propels the sales process toward a decision and commitment to the salesperson’s proposal. This report covers:

  1. The basics of open-ended questions & questioning
  2. Funnel theory of open-ended questions
  3. Following the trail of the answers
  4. Client reactions to open-ended questions
  5. What to do after asking open-ended questions


The most basic definition of an open-ended question is that it is a question that cannot be answered with only yes or no. By contrast these are called closed-ended questions. Often these “close” the discussion with the client, without revealing any helpful information.

A typical closed-ended question for clients is:

Q: “Do you have any material handling needs?”
And a typical client answer to this closed-ended question is:
A: “No.”

Now, what’s the salesperson to say in response to such a negative comment? So, let’s ask an open-ended question instead:

Q: “If you could change one thing about your material handling operations, what would it be?”

This open-ended question gently encourages the client into a discussion and discourages a quick, trite response.

There are six key words used in open-ended questions. These are what, why, when, how, where and who. Any of these can be included in an introductory statement, for example:

“I understand price is a key criteria for your selection, but if all the prices were the same, what would your key decision criteria be?”

In addition, there are two STEALTH METHODS of asking open-ended questions, encouraging the client to talk. These are:

  • “Tell me about…”
  • “Describe for me…”

That’s it. The salesperson who masters these six magic words and two phrases has begun to master Objective Based Selling and has more professional skills and techniques than most of their competitors.

The link at the end of this report supplies over 100 open-ended questions specific to the sale of material handling equipment. These questions can be modified with word substitutions for specific material handling areas or products and for specific situations. It also gives a summary of the most effective open-ended questions, organized by the stages of the Objective Based Selling model, as outlined on the Objective Based Selling diagram.


An effective method of using open-ended questions is to ask the broadest question first; then, based on the client’s answer, move to narrower questions. The benefit being that this encourages a client’s wider thinking about the project, so the salesperson has a better chance of learning all pertinent information. It also prevents the salesperson from making assumptions regarding what is most important to the client.

Example one: the time question
Every viable material handling project has a time objective. Salespeople often assume that this objective is delivery-related, asking “When do you need it?” or some variation of that question. Many salespeople don’t even ask; they simply offer their delivery information up front such as “Our delivery is running at six months” or “We have one in stock if you act quickly.” However, the client’s time objective may not even be related to delivery.

A broader, more effective opening question about time is:

  • “Tell me about the time frame for this project?”
  • Or, broader still: “What is our time frame?”

A broader more effective opening question about time is:

  • “Tell me about the time frame for this project”
  • Or broader still: “What is our time frame?”

Let the client tell you what’s important about time. This can be followed up with narrower questions as the process continues, such as:

  • When do you need this information?”
  • When do you need this proposal?”

Whenever a client states a specific time frame, its important that the follow-up question asks Why is that deadline/date/time frame important?”

Example two: the money question
Salespeople like to ask: “What’s your budget?“ or the ineffective, yet ever-popular: “How much do you have to spend?” Yet the broadest, and therefore the first, money question should be along the lines of: “What are the financial considerations in this project?”


While mastering the open-ended questions to ask, salespeople should also learn to listen carefully to a client’s answers, then follow the “trail of the answers.” The next most effective question to ask is based on the answer just given.

Example of a typical trail of answers with follow-up questions:
Q: What are the financial considerations in this project?”
A: “I need to fight for budget approval from our Finance Committee.”

The questions below demonstrate how just one open-ended question can lead to a whole set of follow-up questions, all following the trail of the client’s answers:

  • Who is on the Finance Committee?”
  • What is their role?”
  • “If you get turned down, how do you meet your objectives in this project?

Ask effective open-ended questions. Listen carefully to the answers. Follow the trail of the answers with strong, logical, follow-up, open-ended questions.


A common question of salespeople about the process of persistently asking open-ended questions is: “What will the client’s reaction be?”

Salespeople are often afraid of alienating clients with probing questions. The more questions they ask, the more nervous they become that the client will be alienated.

Of course, salespeople must constantly watch and be sensitive to the client’s reaction to the questions, but most clients want to be asked. They know they need help and are sceptical of any salesperson making recommendations without asking about their operations or needs.

If the questions are asked in an honest way, as part of a professional sales process, clients seldom refuse to answer or become irritated. As a salesperson senses that one too many questions may have been asked, simply change the subject or end the current conversation.

In the author’s experience, “Ask, and they will answer.”


  • Ask another open-ended question
  • Shut up!
  • Give the client an interested look
  • Be quiet
  • Actively listen and where possible maintain eye contact
  • When the client talks, take notes as appropriate
  • Salespeople often find the second instruction on this list, ‘Shut up!‘, the most difficult to follow. When an appropriate, effective open-ended question is asked, clients often need a moment to reflect on their answer. Silence during conversation makes many people uncomfortable. As the silence lengthens, salespeople become nervous and can sometimes jump to another question before their first one has even been answered. Or, amazingly, attempt to answer the question on behalf of the client, such as: “When do you need this equipment?…As soon as possible?”
  • A phrase sometimes used in communication is “the pregnant pause.” This is that time in a conversation when, after a question or statement, it’s appropriate that something else is said, but it’s momentarily silent. Salespeople must learn to accept the silence and let the client deliver the next statement, let the client break the pregnant pause. Any salesperson who can’t either pause or shut up should find a new profession!

To summarise this report in two short takeaways:

Never interrupt a client when they are talking

Questions are your superpower!


Despite much of the depersonalising processes of the business world (voice mail, email, restricted access, websites, formal criteria, budgeting processes, national agreements) in significant material handling purchases, people still buy from people.

Material handling salespeople must work constantly to understand the personal and professional objectives of their key clients. This is accomplished using interpersonal skills along with business skills and systems. It is done by observing, asking questions, listening, and building rapport with these key individuals.

If clients don’t like, believe, understand and trust a salesperson proposing a significant purchase, they will find a reason and a way to buy from someone else. They will seldom divulge the true reason for losing the order to the unfortunate salesperson and may not even admit it to themselves.

Here we explore this subject and offer effective methods for salespeople to build personal, professional relationships:


There are always exceptions but generally clients like salespeople that:

  • Show genuine interest, asking open-ended questions and listening, instead of just talking
  • Have an appearance that seems appropriate to the client
  • Are interested in some of the same things
  • Help make their job easier
  • Have speech patterns and activity paces similar to their own
  • Don’t patronise them
  • Share something with them such as an activity or lunch
  • Show the client in a positive light to their organisation and boss
  • Have an appropriate sense of humour

Clients believe salespeople that:

  • Do some research before making claims or recommendations
  • Make claims that are confirmed by their own experiences
  • Don’t speak badly of their competition
  • Show proof statements or evidence
  • Are detail oriented, in a way the client can understand

Clients understand salespeople that:

  • Use words which clients understand, not jargon they don’t understand
  • Walk clients through discussions without patronising them
  • Create opportunities for clients to see it with their own eyes
  • Support statements with appropriate visual aids

Clients trust salespeople that:

  • Show up on time
  • Give a strong handshake and look clients in the eye
  • Meet commitments, whether important or small
  • Don’t exaggerate
  • Resolve problems quickly
  • Always follow through


Salespeople should observe many things with clients, beginning even before the initial contact, such as:

  • What can I learn from their website? Or from their building’s appearance?
  • What’s the tone of the client’s reception personnel? Friendly? Professional? Impersonal?
  • How protected or isolated are primary contacts and decision influencers?

During initial meetings, salespeople should observe:

  • Is the client on time and respectful of the salesperson’s time?
  • Does the client give their undivided attention?
  • What is in the client’s office? What does the client seem to take interest in? What seems to be the appropriate attire? How organised is the client?
  • How rushed is the client? Where is the office within the building and in the apparent pecking order?
  • Is the client detail-oriented or interested in the bigger picture? Or both?
  • What seems to be the primary method of communication?
  • What’s the client’s sense of humour like?

During on-site tours, the salesperson should observe:

  • How the client treats others in the organisation and how is the client treated by others?
  • What interests the client on-site?
  • What are the areas of responsibility?
  • What’s the condition of the site and demeanour of the employees?

In general, the salesperson should observe the best way to relate to the individual and how the individual interacts within their organisation. The salesperson should also observe whether the client’s way of conducting business is compatible with their own in the long term.

Other than the business objective questions discussed in other parts of Objective Based Selling, salespeople should consider relatively personal open-ended questions such as:

  • “How long have you been with the company?”
  • “What do you like about working here? About your job?”
  • “What’s the most difficult part of your job? Of working here?”
  • “What’s been your favourite job and why?
  • “What kinds of things do you in your spare time?”
  • “What do you do when you’re not working?”
  • “Where are you from?”

If the salesperson sees a personal item, or item indicating outside interests, or awards, these can provide an opportunity to ask appropriate questions such as:

  • Tell me about that picture/award/plaque/item”

A note of caution; the salesperson must constantly be sensitive to the client’s desire or willingness to discuss such matters.

On more professional topics, questions might include:

  • “What is your area of responsibility?” (NOTE: do not say “What’s your job title?”)
  • “What other material handling projects have you been involved with?”
  • “What has your experience been with our company?”

The general idea of personal, professional questions is to find common ground, mutual interests and most importantly, find out how the client wants to do business. The salespeople who are most successful are those who do business the way the client wants to do business, both personally and professionally. If there is a basic incompatibility in the way the two parties conduct business then the salesperson must evaluate how a successful adaptation can be made.

The salesperson must listen for clues about how the client wants to do business. Not only are the words important, but the client’s tone, style, implications and interest. The salesperson listens for clues regarding the best way to relate to the client and build personal, professional relationships.

The most successful salespeople build rapport with their clients and go on to develop a true friendship with a small number of these clients during their career. These close relationships will often include spending significant time outside a strict business environment. However, this is not the general goal for salespeople when developing personal, professional relationships, because genuine friendship is too rare and cannot be planned. Salespeople, however, can have a goal of developing rapport with key decision influencers at targeted businesses. That’s the goal of observing, questioning, listening and finally building rapport into this level of relationship. If it can be done, significant business will most likely be achieved with the client.


While generalisations about people are to be used with caution, there are two basic extremes of individual client types which are helpful to examine.

Professional-type clients are not interested in making any significant personal connection until the salesperson has proven himself professionally. In other words, the salesperson must earn the right to have a personal conversation or relationship. A salesperson trying for a personal conversation in an initial meeting with this client-type will be rebuffed. If the attempt is pursued, the salesperson is seen as insincere and further access is difficult. Signs of this type for the salesperson to observe can include an office without many personal items or a somewhat brusque, get-to-the-point manner. Short or non-answers to personal questions is another danger sign, as well as short appointments.

At the other end of this continuum are the personal-type clients. These individuals do want to make a personal connection first, before doing significant business. They want to get to know the salesperson personally before deciding whether they trust them enough to do business with them. Indications of this type may be an office with lots of personal memorabilia; expanding on answers to questions of a personal nature; asking some personal questions of the salesperson and looking for connections. Salespeople dealing with this type must slow down and look for that personal connection. It may take time and the salesperson needs to determine whether the eventual payoff is worth the effort. On those occasions when a personal connection is not made, a good strategy is to find someone else in the salesperson’s organisation who may be able to make a better personal connection. A second strategy is patience.

Most client contacts are not at the extremes of these two types, but somewhere in the middle of the professional-personal continuum. Assessing this and acting accordingly helps the salesperson build rapport


Just as every viable material handling project has time and money objectives, every individual has ego. How individuals view themselves impacts on their self-confidence and their style in dealing with others. Two extremes might be an individual with a strong self-concept, sometimes to the point of arrogance and another who has a low self-concept, even to the point of low self-esteem. There are no easy ways to determine the self-concept of an individual, however, salespeople should always be aware that they will be most successful in those situations where they make an accurate assessment of this and treat clients accordingly.


In the MHE or capital equipment markets, the task of cold calling in business development is probably the most difficult and uncomfortable for most people. This is because it involves talking to new people whom they have never met or spoken with before. If a salesperson can refine this skill, when coupled with good discipline, they will become one of the most effective salespeople in the company.

In our example below, let’s assume the salesperson has already carried out some prospect research including company name, telephone number, contact name and potential product or service usage. Then, we propose adopting the useful cold calling telephone techniques below for your first telephone contact:

  1. BE FIRM: Get straight to the point and don’t give too much information, e.g.
    “Sheldon England here for John Smith please.”
  2. BE VAGUE: If they question the reason for your call, be vague, e.g.
    “I’m calling about a potential warehouse improvement project.”
    “I’m calling about MHE equipment modernisation.”
    “My call is about a potential quality enhancement project.”
  3. MAKE YOUR PITCH: If they ask yet more questions, treat them like they are a decision influencer by giving them a good reason to put you through, e.g. how your product or service will help them fix their problems or save them money.
  4. STRESS IMPORTANCE: If they still won’t put you through tell them:
    “This is important information that your Manager is going to want to know about.”
  5. ASK FOR AN EMAIL ADDRESS: If they still won’t put you through, ask for the managers email address. If they still won’t provide this, I’d then do two things:
    a) ask for the gatekeeper’s email address and write directly to them, plus;
    b) write a direct letter to the manager/ director and post it. A lot of the time emails get filtered but direct letters or even faxs, that are not sales pitchy invariably get through to the VP.

Then dust yourself down, move on and find someone who WILL talk to you!


  • Be polite because you will talk to them again
  • Don’t lie to them because you will talk to them again
  • Show genuine interest in them because you will talk to them again. If you are doing your job well, you’ll eventually meet them
  • Build rapport so stay concentrated and gauge when to back off

Following a successful cold call, share that success with the senior managers and directors in your company. Firstly, they will be delighted to do so and secondly, it will help you personally because:

  • It will enhance your personal stock in your company
  • Your company’s senior managers may have some important historical information concerning the new customer. This may be useful when you attend your first customer meeting or next scheduled telephone call
  • Success will motivate you. Cold calling will become a challenge you actually look forward to

A general rule in cold calling and business development is to always work to a personal business plan. In my scenario, the starting point was my sales target, broken down into the distinct activities required to give me the best chance of achieving that plan:

  • Annual Revenue or GP target
  • How many FLTs (or unit orders) do I need to sell to meet that plan?
  • Based on the approximate company ratio of 3:1 (or however good you are 🙂 ), how many sales proposals do I need to write to get 1 deal?
  • How many customer meetings do I need in the year to meet my sales proposals and orders target?
  • How many new people or companies do I need to engage with to achieve my meetings, proposals & orders goal?

All these activities can be consolidated to give an approximate number of how many telephone calls you need to make per day in order to give yourself the best chance of being successful in your job and meeting your target. Once you know this figure, on your cold calling days, to keep yourself motivated and fired up, set yourself small daily goals, such as:

  • Say to yourself, you WILL achieve something significant that helps you continue forward motion in pursuit of your annual sales target. This could be a new sales appointment, identifying a new client or a valuable telephone conversation
  • Target yourself with a certain number of telephone calls required to earn your next cup of coffee or mini break from phoning. You will enjoy that cup of coffee even more!

Your cold calling days are focussed sessions. Do not do any other jobs such as answering emails; proposal writing; dealing with customer complaints, service or sales meetings. On your cold calling days, you need to have 2 things only. Firstly, a clear and determined mindset and secondly, a clear set of daily objectives. Do not give yourself an excuse for NOT making calls. By working to your target, the target and it’s activities propels you forward. Life will become easier in this difficult yet incredibly rewarding profession!

So, you’ve been put through to the decision maker or influencer and you want to get an appointment!


Here are four recommendations that will guarantee you increase your cold call to appointment conversion rate.

There are numerous ways we engage new prospects for the very first time. These include:

  • A business development telephone call
  • Meeting at a Trade Show or Conference
  • A social media link, usually Facebook or Linkedin

In the business-to-business world, the very first interaction is usually via the telephone or a chance meeting at a professional event such as a trade show or conference. For demonstration purposes, in this blog let’s assume a cold call, made on the telephone, by the fictional company Global MHE LTD.

Remember, in telephone business development, a prospect decides if they want to stay engaged within the first 7 seconds of contact. So you need a hook which engages the prospect, is low key, to the point and scripted.


The start needs a low key, slow, mellow approach rather than the typical high pitch, high energy sales approach that reeks of a cold call


This needs to be direct and to the point, such as:

  • “Sheldon England here, is this a good time to talk?”
  • “Sheldon England here, did I catch you in the middle of something?”

After your question, then be quiet, listen and wait for the reply.


This needs a script such as:

  • “My company Global MHE works with many companies like yours, helping them to dramatically increase their warehouse productivity”
  • “Right now we are seeing a lot of companies where, in their warehouses, they are looking for NEW intelligent ways to increase their footprint and reduce labour costs”


After your brief explanation you could ask any of the following:

  • “What improvement would you like to make?”
  • “What challenges are you currently facing?”
  • “How are these things affecting your operation?”
    (which is a little less direct and softer)
  • Or any open-ended question that suits your situation

Then, be quiet again. Listen to your client’s reply. Focus intensely on every word. They are telling you how you should sell to them.

If the prospect starts talking about their business you have probably engaged them to such an extent that they no longer wish to terminate the call. At this point, to move forward, we recommend you listen more than talk and have a thorough knowledge of:

  • Work your company has done with other similar clients, including how that work benefitted your client
  • In-depth knowledge of your product range
  • Your company’s after sales service principles
  • Your company structure

Be armed with as much important industry-related knowledge as you can. Only use it if you feel it’s appropriate. Remember, the point of the call is to secure a face-to-face appointment. You DON’T want to talk yourself out of a meeting because you’ve given them too much over the phone.

Ask for an appointment offering options on dates and times. Once the meeting has been agreed, send a short, single-paragraph email that same day confirming the meeting. Attach a 1-page PDF of your professional details.


These principals can also be applied to those canvassing new prospects using Social Media platforms such as Linkedin, with the objective to either set up a telephone call or a face-to-face meeting.

In the space of one, or possibly two, short paragraphs, you need to cover how your product or service has benefitted similar clients citing 2 or 3 examples in bullet form. Below these bullet points write an open-ended question such as:

  • What challenges is your company currently facing?
  • Where would you like to make improvements?
  • Share with me your company’s manufacturing/warehousing/distribution process

The whole purpose is either to obtain a reply or to engage them. By keeping your message really short and focusing on their needs & objectives, instead of your issues, you are giving yourself the best chance of establishing new B2B contacts and developing a new client which is the most difficult job in selling!



For your first scheduled client meeting, always be over prepared, so do pre- meeting research such as:

  • Research the company you are visiting on their website
  • Look up the decision maker/ influencer you are meeting on Linkedin
  • If they have given you a basic outline of their objectives, prepare some examples of work you have done with similar clients, or even better, local clients, and what your products or services helped them achieve
  • Always take more supporting material than you need; brochures, PPP or KN, product videos, client testimonials, your professional CV, but don’t show any of this until you have a basic understanding of their needs and have added value by asking questions

For two fundamental reasons, arriving on time and your personal attire is everything because:

  • 95% of your client’s initial opinion of you will be based on dress and grooming
  • They will decide if they like you in the first 4 seconds of meeting you and will spend the rest of the meeting justifying that initial decision they made in those first 4 seconds


Other things you can do to help in your first meeting are:

  • Always arrive early and in the event you are going to be late, text or call the client in advance
  • Don’t use the phone or read while waiting to see the client
  • Hands out of pockets
  • Jacket and tie on; even if it’s warm
  • Look them directly in the eyes and smile
  • Mirror their handshake
  • Match their tonality in terms of volume and pace of speech

Give them 100% of your attention. In order to purchase your company’s products and services the buyer needs to LIKE you, TRUST you, BELIEVE you and UNDERSTAND you.


After the initial “hello, how are you?“, always SET A PERSONAL TONE by saying something positive, such as:

  • “Please thank your PA for looking after me”
  • “Lovely office; such a fantastic view”
  • “Thanks for the hot coffee”

You can also make a PERSONAL OBSERVATION that’s relevant such as: something in their office that you can relate to like a sporting picture on the wall; have you visited the company location in the past; does your company do business with other companies in their Group? The point behind making a personal observation is to show you are human and not a commodity and it’s at this point where, if the client engages you in conversation relative to the tone you have set, the pressure is off to get straight down to business.

Also covered in our blog entitled Build Personal, Professional Relationships, salespeople need to consider whether the customer’s style is inclined to being PERSONAL or PROFESSIONAL first. This skill is so important that, if it can be developed and fine-tuned, you are on your way towards being one of the most successful salespeople in your company.


If you’ve SET THE TONE and they are ENGAGED with you, there is little client pressure and you can control the pace of the meeting by asking open-ended questions relating to their operational needs and objectives.


If the client is NOT ENGAGED with you and dives in using phrases such as:

  • “What’s your product?”
  • “I’m busy. What’s your best price?”
  • “We are short on time, what’s your pitch?”
  • “You’ve got 10 minutes, tell me about your product”

they are taking control which you don’t want. So, flip it around by doing 2 things:

  • Acknowledge comment by saying “I understand you are a busy man and want to get straight to the point. But I’m sure you’ll agree that I wouldn’t be serving you or your company correctly if I don’t fully understand your needs.”
    “I’m sure you’ll agree that it wouldn’t be right for me to talk about a product or solution until I fully understand what solution will work best for your company.”
  • Then ask them open-ended questions which can be tailored to your specific company’s product offering such as:
  • “Tell me about your warehousing operation”
  • “What’s the most critical issue in this project?”
  • “Where are the pinch points in your pick and pack operation?”
  • “How critical is it to reduce labour costs?”
  • “How important is it to create more space in your Distribution Centre?”
  • “What’s your view on making better use of the available cube in the DC?”
  • “Who else is involved in the decision-making process?”

For a complete list of over 100 Open-Ended Questions, specific to the MHE and Capital Equipment Markets, download the full report by clicking HERE

During the course of your meeting discussions, whether the solution looks like it’s either a single low-cost capital item or a detailed solution, as part of your personal fact find you should strive to learn 4 things:

  • Determine clients Business Objectives
  • Identify Decision Influencers
  • Establish Parameters
  • Develop Alternative Solutions

For more on this, refer to the Objective Based Selling Diagram-Your Memory Tool, which can be downloaded by clicking HERE


  • Clearly summarise what you have learnt from this meeting
  • Depending on the complexity of the project, explain the follow up work you will do on their behalf, such as site surveys, data analysis, customer site visits, organising scrum meetings, preparing OBS customer focused proposals or a review of your solution etc
  • Explain the time frame for this initial work including when and how you will present back your solution
  • Preferably on the same day, or latest the day after, summarise in an email the above points. Keep the email to a single paragraph with 2, possibly 3, bullet-points, followed by your next steps
  • If you feel the meeting went well, ask for a referral: “Who else in your industry do you think would benefit from our services?” Remember, only 9% of salespeople ask for a client referral and a referral has weight


The advice offered in this report is designed to help you add real value. You have done this by using your new skills and knowledge to help you develop personal/ professional relationships plus understanding the customer’s needs and objectives by asking open-ended questions.

For more on how to Build Personal, Professional Relationships, download the full report by clicking HERE


In sales everything counts! Everything you do and say affects your credibility. To enhance that credibility OBS recommends taking complete responsibility and control over every detail of the following three things:

  • What you do
  • How you look
  • What you say