Getting the edge in professional selling
Terence A. Hockenhull

ONE OF MY all-time favorite questions to ask during in a sales call is, “In a perfect world’ what would you really like?” As an alternative, “If money were no object, what would you be looking to buy?”

Why are these questions so powerful? Well, provided that you are talking to someone who is willing to be relatively unguarded with their responses, chances are you will get them to relate a “wish-list!” And a wish list is little more than a list of needs which the client, for budgetary or other reasons, is realistic enough to know that he can’t have it all.

Let me put this into perspective. Some months ago, I was meeting with a senior HR Manager from a large company that had recently undergone some significant downsizing. Budgets (for HR, training and other non-operational expenditures had been drastically cut. In reality, the chances of getting any business from this company was all but impossible. After discussing limitations on budget and spending, I asked what she would be looking at doing over the next few months if she still had her original budget. She was quick to outline all of her previous plans.

My next strategy was to establish which of these activities the highest priority were and ask whether these programs would still go ahead. Regrettably, she had included sales in the initial list of training programs she would like to run but had now put these as a lower priority; with the budget cuts, these programs were the first to go. I inquired whether she felt sales training to be important given that the company was now facing a highly competitive marketplace and the future success would certainly depend on revenues over the next couple of years.

Since none of this conversation appeared in the slightest bit threatening, she was quite comfortable setting out her needs. There may be a few readers who would assert that these needs are pointless if the customer has no means to pay. The hungry man who has no money to buy food is still hungry! So providing a solution which would address the lack of budget but still allow the sales team to receive training would probably be well received.

I took the time to confirm the following facts. The sales team needed training; she would proceed with training if she had the budget, and she would like both sales executives and managers to be involved in any training programs. By this point, it was obvious that I would not be getting four or five programs to run over the next six months. So I asked whether she would be willing to allocate funds for a single program to train managers and allow them to cascade skills to their individual teams. We ironed out a few details, I explained how I might design and deliver such a training program and I parted company with her with the agreement to submit a proposal for the training. I’m happy to say I ran the program a few weeks later.

Of course this was considerably less than I expected when I walked into the client’s office. But it is testament to the original question, “In a perfect world, what would you really like?” Ask this question (or something similarly worded) and the client will detail everything they would like. Pick out the items that you can deliver and match these to the wish list. As one more example, just imagine if you were asked to describe the perfect car (money being no object). In detailing a super-fast, high-performance BMW or Mercedes (or whatever your preference might be) you would be expressing a need for good performance, stylish looks, comfort and safety, all of which might appear in a less prestigious brand (for a considerably lower price).

Take the time to find out what is important to your clients. Establish needs (even if the customer believes these cannot be met), and match your solutions to these needs. In this way you will walk away with a closed sale considerably more often that you might think possible!

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.