Asking questions

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Getting The Edge In Professional Selling
Terence A. Hockenhull

A couple of weeks back, I suggested that there appear to be an awful lot of people who set themselves up as sales “gurus” but who know next to nothing about selling. The advice they give seems to be based on what they believe to be effective selling techniques (perhaps because they attribute their own success to using these techniques). But this usually falls far short of what might be construed to be sound, valuable, and useful advice.

As an example of this, I typed into Google “Best questions to ask in sales calls.” I could fill the whole of this article with the advice I picked up. The first five Web sites offered no less than 21 powerful questions, 10 tips, 25 essential questions, 23 penetrating questions and 50 great sales questions.

These gems appeared under the top listing. “What are you up to this weekend?”, “It was good to hear the short version of your background at the meeting, but since we’re out for lunch, I’d love to get the long version. What’s your story?”, “What metrics are you responsible for?”, and, “Why did you agree to see me today?”

In fairness, there were some sensible questions listed as well. However, I would suggest that learning 35 masterful questions and then trying these out on your client is likely to have a pretty miserable effect. It seems to me this would be a little like learning a particular piece on a piano in the hope that one day you might participate in a talent contest and the piece might be a favorite of the judges!

The strange thing is, every one of the questions listed has its place in selling (with perhaps the exception of “What are you up to this weekend?”). To me, the key skill in selling is knowing what to ask for and when to ask for it. In very simple terms, there is information you must know in order to understand the client and his business. “Tell me about your business” might work in this situation. But understand that if you are selling banking solutions, your inquiries might be better placed finding out what banking instruments and transactions are typically and commonly used. Of course, for the computer or copier salesperson, these questions would be wholly inappropriate.

So what dictates the questions? Well, I know this sounds absurdly simple but it really comes down to what you want to hear your clients tell you. This may be recounting important information or answering a simple yes or no question in a particular way. Let me give a very simple example here. Suppose a salesperson notices his client is using a competitor’s product. He might know that the product is unreliable and the company has an appalling reputation for customer support. The salesperson now thinks to himself, “I want to hear my customer tell me that the machine he is using is unreliable and that he has been disappointed by the level of customer service.” Simple! All he needs to ask is “Has your existing equipment proved to be reliable?” and on receiving the answer that it has not performed well, ask, “How has the level of customer support and service been?”

In sales, there are four basic types of questions. There are those which allow you to ask information about the company and their business. These are very simple to ask; indeed, most neophyte salespeople concentrate on these questions at the expense of any other type. In today’s markets, we actually don’t need to ask so many of these background questions. The Internet provides much of this information so you do not need to be asking your customers. However, it is important to let your customer know you have done your homework.

Key questions should relate to the problems that the client might be having. As I have suggested, have a good idea what type of problems the client might be facing. Focus on asking about difficulties or concerns that your product will overcome.

Sometimes, customers fail to take issues seriously or recognize the severity of their problems. I was talking with a good friend of mine a few days back and he jokingly mentioned the black smoke that pumps out of the exhaust of his delivery truck each time the vehicle is started outside his building. Clearly, not something he considers a problem! However, he subsequently admitted that his driver has been stopped and fined twice in the last two months and that he will have to have the car parking space repainted because of soot on the wall and black oil all over the floor! After this conversation, he ceased to think it was a matter to joke about!

The last type of questions are those that make the client think about solving problems and taking action. These questions change the focus of the sales call away from difficulties and concerns towards solutions, enhancement and improvements. “What would you like to achieve?” “What improvements are you looking for?” “How would replacing the item benefit you?”

The real key to asking questions is to follow a very simple process. Find out as much as possible about your client and their business (ideally before you sit in front of them). Engage them in friendly, unthreatening conversation but seek, through appropriately worded questions, to uncover their problems, difficulties dissatisfactions and concerns. When you have a good idea of what these are (and you are sure your customer see these in the same light), move on to asking questions that will emphasize the benefits of addressing concerns or solving problems. Then and only then should you start to offer your appropriate, fitting and sensible solutions.

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.