Getting the edge in professional selling
Terence A. Hockenhull

Every salesperson knows he should be asking questions; sadly, very few drive their sales calls with effective investigation skills. Assumptions about the client’s needs are usually made and products or services are frequently presented long before there is a clear understanding of the client’s requirements. This often results in the salesperson facing a customer who is less than willing to devote time to the sales meeting. Sales calls often end with the customer behaving in an aggressive manner and raising objections to any proffered product.

A salesperson needs to have a clear understanding of the situation his client is in. Mr. Google can be extremely helpful; a few key strokes and a lot of information about a client is readily to hand. Nonetheless, there will always be information that will take too long to find or is simply not available online. Suppose you are selling photocopiers. It is easy to find out what line of business your client is in, where their offices are located, how many branches they have, etc. But how many photocopiers do they have? Do they lease or outright purchase? What brands have they used in the past? What are their special needs? Clearly, Google is unlikely to have this information to hand. Realistically, the only way to get it is to ask during a face-to-face meeting.

Accepting that a client is unlikely to purchase a replacement unless there is something wrong with the old unit and will not acquire new equipment unless there is a need for it, questions need to be asked to get this information. “Are you happy with the performance of the equipment you are currently using” “Is this something you feel would benefit your company?” “Can you see any value in replacing the equipment now?” All good questions which allow the customer to state problems and express needs.

Each of these questions “types” has a purpose. It may be to identify general information about the client and their business. Perhaps the questions help uncover problems, difficulties, dissatisfactions and concerns. Maybe the focus of the question is to help the customer relate to solving problems and understanding the value of the proposed solution.

When I used to design and deliver sales training programs, I put a great deal of emphasis on determining what type of questions to ask and when to ask them. It is useful to know how to “extract” salient and useful information from the client and help them express a need for the products being sold. However, 50% of the battle is to get the customer involved and engaged in the sales process. This is and should always be the primary reason for asking questions.

Why do we ask questions during a sales call? Well, as stated above, it is to extract information from the client. However, a far more compelling reason (in my opinion) is that by asking questions, we can make the client think about issues that may be important or essential in closing a sale. Let me give an example here. Suppose a client is using an old piece of equipment that has regular breakdowns. No doubt the client is aware of this fact and is perhaps concerned about the amount which is being spent on repairs. However, is the customer aware that spare parts may not be readily available and as such, may be delaying the return of the equipment to operational status? As a result of this, stoppages, late deliveries, upset customers, and lost revenues may all be factors that impinge on a client’s decision to do something about the old equipment. Asking questions is a really effective way of bringing matters like this to the customer’s attention.

There is an expression, “We all like to buy; we just don’t want to be sold to!” This is very true. The salesperson who neglects to involve his customer in the sale is telling him what to do and what to buy. Customers want to feel they are part of the process and fully involved in making the right decision.

The simplest advice I can give any salesperson is to enjoy a comfortable, two-way conversation with their client. Asking questions is a simple way to develop the conversation and steer it in a direction which will help the salesperson sell his products or services.

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.