CONSUMERS have changed. The change started 10 years ago and has accelerated over the past five. Anyone who does not realise that has either been away from the Internet for a long time or is in denial.

It is a buyer’s market and it is likely to stay that way because the amount of information and connectivity available to consumers will only increase.

Selling to this type of consumers is different. It is not necessarily more difficult — unless you try to sell to them using the old process, which assumed that the buying cycle and selling cycle were in sync.

Nowadays, the buying cycle starts a long time before the sales staff know there is a cycle.

To sell effectively in this “age of the buyer”, four skills must be mastered:

1. Create a great trust impression

While trustworthiness has always been an important factor in the buying choice, factors that emerged during the global financial crisis made it front of mind.

Pictures of Bernard Madoff being taken off to prison have made trust a key issue for consumers. Yet, consumers have shown that they want to trust — even complete strangers.

Think of eBay, which is an entire model based on sending your money in advance to buy from complete strangers based on references of...complete strangers. Yet it works — to the tune of over $8 billion in 2009.

You need to be able to create a great impression of trustworthiness — which is different to actual trustworthiness.

Some people are very trustworthy, but they create a poor first impression. The trouble is, they often do not get a second chance.

Often nowadays, your first impression is not made by your business attire, smile or handshake, but by your social-networking presence.

This can be either a good or a bad thing depending on what people see.

If they see nothing, you will appear out of touch; if they see albums of you leering drunkenly at a camera, it may compromise your professional image.

Here are two hints for creating trust quickly:

* Firstly, people trust those whom they have the most connections with. Try to find out how many points of connection you can identify in the first meeting.

If you can leave the impression with them that they have more connections with you than your competitors — all other factors being equal — you will get the sale.

This is where your social networking can be an advantage. Even before you meet, check out your prospects on LinkedIn or Facebook to see if you share any connections.

* Secondly, build trust by demonstrating it. Find non-threatening ways to show your customers or potential customers that you trust them — and they will be inclined to trust you.

2. Put yourself in a position of influence

In business, you are either in a position of influence or inferiority.

The buyer–dominant process — where the customer is able to progress through all the steps without a salesman, only involving him at the last step to haggle on price — certainly puts sales staff in a position of inferiority.  

To be seen differently by consumers, you need to provide information or understanding beyond what they can access on a Google search. You need to be seen, not just as a product expert, but also as an industry expert.

3. Create leverage

Always be on the lookout for opportunities to create leverage. Here are two suggestions:

* Find ways to make customers look good. Be their “inside contact” who sends them information before they can get it elsewhere.

* Help them by understanding their systems (both formal and informal) enough to make sure that your proposal is the best fit with their systems. This might involve giving your clients the tools they need to convince other people who influence this decision (some of whom you may never meet).

4. Trigger the buying decision

This is no longer about “selling” or “closing”. Clients do not want to be sold to — they want to buy with confidence.  It is not the “close” of the relationship — it is a sign that everything is going well.

Where you can help your clients is in recognising that they are in a state of information overload and facilitating them through it.

Sales staff who can recognise what a client needs to make a confident decision will probably get the sale.

With the ability to take a customer through these steps, sales staff can be confident that they are adding value to the sales process and truly satisfying the post-Internet consumer.