Before you ask, listen

The key to more sales is to know where and why the process begins

The hardest part for anyone selling anything is asking for the sale. Even experienced, professional sales reps sometimes let potentially good customers slip away because they are too timid to come right out and ask for what they want. The reason, most often, is that the seller feels like he or she is imposing on the buyer, or is asking for too much, or might be rejected.

Train your team to overcome their fear of asking.

But first, teach them how to listen.

Create a win-win

The way to get to “yes” is to carefully listen to your customer, whether you are trying to sell another beer to a patron, a bigger order to a restaurant or liquor store, or an invitation to come back to work to an employee who is reluctant to venture out of the house, even with a facemask.

Most people will say “yes” to an offer or a request if they feel like they are going to get something out of it.

The way to know what that is to listen for it.

Say a regular stops by after work with a pandemic-weary friend who is beyond ready to relax at an outdoor table on a warm summer evening and enjoy a couple of cold ones. Your waiter recognizes the regular and greets him by name, and then introduces herself to the friend.

The regular just received something he wanted: Who does not revel in those Norm Peterson (come on “Cheers” fans) moments when the staff at a favorite hangout knows his name—and he has a friend along to witness it?

And after just a minute or two of chit-chat, the waiter might learn that the friend is tired of the same old beer he has been drinking while sheltering in place, and is ready for something new.

Gratitude is one of your staff’s most-important sales tools. Customers who do not buy what you are selling today have still spent their time listening to your pitch and considering your product.

Here is an opportunity for a whole bunch of sales. First, pitch a flight of your brewery’s newest ales to the friend, who will appreciate her response to his same-old-thing complaint. Second, the regular will probably give the flight a try, too. If the waiter offers, the pair might take a growler or two of the new brews home with them. And both will be back—perhaps with additional friends—before long.

Your server is just doing her job. But in this scenario, she is doing it especially well because she is not simply taking orders, filling them and hoping the customers will be pleased. Instead, she is listening to what her customers want and need, and she is giving them that.

It is a win-win.

Be chatty

Another thing your server did right was engage her customers in a conversation and take a genuine interest in hearing what they had to say.

If a customer notes that he enjoyed the stout he just drank because of its chocolate notes, the server should not simply say, “I’m glad you liked it.” Instead, she should hear it as a sales opportunity, and ask, “Can I get you another one?” Even better, she can offer something new: “Do you want to try our porter? Chocolate lovers order it all the time.”

And the next time that customer comes in, the server might even bring him a dessert menu. The idea is to hear what the customer likes and then give more of it. Train your staff to ask questions, make small talk and pay attention.

Expect a “yes”

Employees who are reluctant to ask for more business often say they fear they will hear a “no.” They assume they will be embarrassed or tongue-tied or defensive. But there is no reason for that.

In fact, if the “ask” is for something the employee has discovered the customer wants anyway, the answer will most likely be “yes.” If it is not, though, what is the worst that can happen? A punch in the nose? An angry lecture? A customer lost forever?

Of course not. “No” just means the customer does not want what you are selling. So train your employees to try to sell something else—something the customer does want—or to thank the customer for coming in.

When you train your non-sales staff in selling, this is one of the most-important lessons. Employees who do not ask for the sale will not make the sale. Those who do will, occasionally, hear a “no.” Even so, it is worth asking, just in case the customer says “yes.”

Plan for a “no”

Even though a customer’s answer is often “yes,” it is worthwhile for employees to plan for what they will do when they hear a “no.” The plan should have three parts:

Part 1 is to find out why the customer said “no,” if it is easy to steer the conversation in that direction.

Say you have trained your delivery driver to ask for another sale every time he drops a case of beer off at a restaurant. He asks the owner: “How are the ribs selling? We have got a smoky new imperial porter that would go great with that dish. Can I bring you a case to try out next week?”

The owner says, “Not right now.”

The driver can follow up: “Not selling many ribs?”

Just asking that question could get him a better answer: “No, since we’ve reopened, more people are ordering our vegetable dishes for some reason. Porter’s probably too heavy for grilled vegetables.”

Then, the driver can offer an amber ale or a German-style lager that might pair better with the lighter fare. In this case, the driver’s Plan B in case of a “no” was to probe deeper to learn the reason for it. And his follow-up very well could end in the sale of an alternative product.

Thank every customer you meet, no matter how much or how little money has changed hands. And follow up later, when you introduce a product that you know will be just the thing that customer wants.

Part 2 is similar: If the customer rejects your first offer, make a second one. Is there a different, better-suited product? For example, a manager who invites the brewery staff back to work after a months-long furlough might hear “no” from some employees who feel safer staying at home.

Instead of hiring replacements, the manager might be able to “sell” those employees on coming back to work by assigning them tasks that they can work on from home. Or she could stagger the employees’ hours so very few of them are at work at one time. She could reassign a public-facing employee, like a bartender, to the brewery, where customers never venture.

“No” often does not mean “no matter what.” Figure out how to overcome the customer’s objections, and a “no” to this could become a “yes” to that.

Part 3 of the plan involves thanking the customer, whether the answer was “yes” or “no.” Gratitude is one of your staff’s most-important sales tools. Customers who do not buy what you are selling today have still spent their time listening to your pitch and considering your product. And they could be back tomorrow for something else.

Thank every customer you meet, no matter how much or how little money has changed hands. And follow up later, when you introduce a product that you know will be just the thing that customer wants.

Asking does not have to be scary, but it does have to be the cornerstone of any brewery’s sales effort.


Dr. Cindy McGovern is known as the “First Lady of Sales.” She speaks and consults internationally on sales, interpersonal communication and leadership, and is the author of the Wall Street Journal best seller "Every Job Is a Sales Job: How to Use the Art of Selling to Win at Work."" Dr. Cindy is the CEO of Orange Leaf Consulting, a sales management and consulting firm in San Francisco.