Asking Questions

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Getting The Edge In Professional Selling
Terence A. Hockenhull

IF YOU DON’T ask questions, you show a lack of interest in your customer’s problems and needs. Although you may think you have done your homework and have a very clear idea how your product will help the client, chances are, your assessment of the customer’s needs will be somewhat generic.

Marketing 080417Let me try to explain. Suppose you are selling office telephone network systems. You learn of a prospective customer who is in the midst of hiring a staff of 30 people to open a branch office in the Philippines. They have recently signed a lease for an office space in Ortigas and are now buying furniture and fitting out the offices. On the face of it, this sounds like a perfect customer and one which, providing you are first in through the door, you have every chance of closing.

So, you prepare your pitch! A flashy PowerPoint presentation listing the many features of your new generation PABX systems should do the trick. The trouble with this approach is that the only thing you know is that the customer will probably need telephone communications.

Do they need call conferencing, individual number barring, departmental billing, interface with the office computer network, etc? Sure, all of these things may be very nice to have; but does the customer really need them? Perhaps they rely on cellular communications and only need a simple landline system for a few administrative staff. Maybe instead of IDD calls, they will make all long-distance calls using Skype or other VOIP apps. What budget do they have? Perhaps they are looking for a basic system now with the expandability in the next couple of years to accommodate a four-fold increase in staff.


When the sale is for cheap or simple items, the decision to buy can be made very quickly without undue concern about the consequences of buying the wrong thing. But it should also be apparent that as the value increases, the customer will become increasingly concerned about wasting money, buying the wrong thing or committing to something that may have far reaching, and possibly negative consequences on his business.

To achieve success in this environment, it is necessary to take time to establish the client’s real needs before proffering a solution. The customer is spending money; it is appropriate for them to be involved by stating what they actually want. Of course, there are times when the customer does not know what he wants or lacks the technical ability to determine his own needs. Hark back to the time many years ago when people used to walk into computer stores and make the statement, “I need a computer” with little idea what they really wanted.

Notwithstanding, this situation should not preclude asking questions to steer the customer towards stating clear needs and away from making a purchase decision which will not favor the seller. A typical example of this might be a customer limiting the quality of the item they buy by working within an unrealistically small budget. The expression, “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys” comes to mind! Asking the customer about the consequence of buying cheap, unreliable products with poor service backup, a lack of spare parts and no product support might be enough to make them understand that the option of spending a little more now might save them money in the long term.

Clients don’t appreciate salespeople who ask a lot of questions just to uncover basic information which could have been gathered from other sources. Asking questions which demonstrate a real interest in the customer’s situation, problems and needs will almost certainly be welcomed by the customer. One of my favorite sales’ tenets is, “It is the job of salespeople to assist their customers make informed and sensible decision in favor of their own products or services.”

I used the expression a couple of weeks ago, “Engaging the Customer.” At the end of the day, this is what asking questions is all about. Talk to the customer, not at them. Gain their interest, enthusiasm and commitment through a two way discussion. Dictate the topics to be discussed by all means; but do so by asking the right questions, not telling the customer what to do.

Terence A. Hockenhull is a long-term resident of the Philippines. He is an accomplished sales consultant who currently holds an executive sales position with an Italian geotechnical company.