Exploring, investigating, or probing

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Getting The Edge In Professional Selling
Terence A. Hockenhull

MOST SALES programs teach participants to ask questions. Whether this is called exploring, investigating, or probing, the rationale is to uncover important information from the client that can be used to help match the right products or services against the client’s stated needs.

As I have said many times in the past, there is little point in a salesperson sitting with a client and spend time talking about his own products and services. Doing this means that the client has no opportunity to provide input about his needs and often results in the salesperson offering inappropriate products or services. Little wonder that salespersons who apply this style of selling face a multitude of objections from their clients.

First and foremost, failing to ask questions demonstrates that the salesperson is not interested in buyer’s problems and needs; rather, his interest is to close the sale. At best, the salesperson may have done his homework and have a very clear idea how the proffered product will help and assist his client. And he may also (as should be the case) have a strong belief that the product he is offering is the very best in the market and will address his client’s needs. Nonetheless, one can hardly blame the poor client for feeling left out of the process.

When the sale is for an inexpensive, simple item, little time needs to be spent with the customer. After all, 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 what extent do we trust salespersons? I am not suggesting that every salesperson that approaches a client is considered a crook. Nonetheless, from the client’s perspective, there are usually some doubts about the reason for the salespersons’ visit. He is there to sell a product or service and, as such, will only tell the truth when it suits him. He is unlikely to disclose information if he believes this might deter the client from buying, and in some cases he may exaggerate claims about the product or service simply to make it appear more attractive. No wonder clients have some doubt about the salespersons’ intentions.

(Unfortunately, there are salespersons out there that make a practice of doing this, and many of us have firsthand experience of being cheated or buying a totally unsuitable product or service.)

Clients who ask questions, far from being difficult or awkward, are showing interest in the sales process. They recognize that the customer is spending money, and it is appropriate that they should be involved in the selling/buying process.

Many salespersons, while agreeing with the first statement, may also consider a client’s questions to be disruptive. A good example of this might be a client who asks for the price early in the sale. The salespersons may not have had the opportunity to explain all of the features of the product (that justify the high price) and, when revealing the cost, watch the client’s resistance to the purchase increase.

There is another tenet of sales that claims objections are a good thing because they show the client is interested in the product. Overcome the objection, and it is only a short step to closing the sale! From my perspective, this seems like an unduly difficult way to approach the sale; explain the product, let the client object, and then try to overcome the objection. Surely it would be better not to face the objection in the first place.

Agreeing that we need to maintain the client’s interest and keep them involved in the sale without giving rise to questions that disrupt the selling process or objections that need to be tackled, how does the professional maintain control of the sales meeting? Well, we are back to the earlier statement that the salesperson needs to control the meeting by asking appropriately worded questions.

Clients certainly don’t want to be bothered with a salesperson who asks lots of questions to uncover basic information that could have been gathered from other sources. Researching the client prior to the call is one effective way of getting much of the information necessary to sell. Calls to a receptionist, review of an annual report, reading the client’s product information, or checking out the Web site are some of the methods that can be employed.

I met a client a couple of weeks ago after visiting their website and received plaudits that I had done my research well. The client felt flattered that I had spent time finding out about the company and was impressed with the depth of my research. Indeed, he was somewhat surprised to learn that I had been able to source so much relevant information from the Web site. And in doing so, I was able to demonstrate to the client that I was interested in him and his company and clearly wanted to make sure I matched the right service to his needs and requirements.

The sales meeting is the time to ask questions that will allow the client to reveal their needs for the product or service. A good place to start is to think about the problems that the client might face. By asking appropriately worded questions, the salesperson can take the client through a process that makes him think about his actual situation and consider all of the problem issues and how these impact on his business. (It goes without saying, the focus of the questions should be on problems that can be addressed by the seller’s products and services!)

Questions should also be asked to help the client appreciate the value of addressing the problems. Focusing on issues such as increasing productivity, reducing waste, lowering of overheads, or simplifying operations will help the customer consider additional benefits that will accrue by taking action.

Of course, there is no point in asking questions if the answers are not listened to carefully and processed to help the client make a decision. In offering solutions, the salesperson (who is finally talking about his products or services) should be relating all of the positive feature and benefits of the product to information already gained. Demonstrating how the solution meets the expressed needs of the client is far more likely to win the customer’s business that harping on about unwanted, unneeded, and unnecessary features of the product.

Remember, asking questions is a good way to gather information. It also helps guide the client to issues that should be considered in making a purchase and allows the salesperson to control the meeting. Lastly, it keeps the client involved and interested in the selling process, salesperson and products sold.

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.