Getting The Edge In Professional Selling
Terence A. Hockenhull

AS REGULAR READERS of this column may know, I have spent the last six months desperately trying to recruit individuals to join our sales team. My frustration with the process of finding anyone remotely suitable knows no bounds. Applicants are so few in numbers, I am forced to invite any applicant (good or bad) for an interview just in case they have some hidden talents. So last week, I sat down with a young man who had been referred by a colleague. My work mate commented that the applicant had been working for DPWH for some considerable time and was keen to work in a more aggressive and commercial endeavor. As an engineer, I felt this might just be a good match.

So it was with some irritation, five minutes into the interview that I found myself asking questions only to be answered with monosyllabic responses. No enthusiasm; clearly no effort to have researched the position or company and frankly, not a great deal of relevant experience. Now I know I am a foreigner; yes sometimes young Filipinos can be intimidated. Nonetheless, I was hiring a sales person! And I am good at interviewing, knowing how to get the best out of applicants. In this case, it was clear there really wasn’t too much “best” within!

Gooimaged salespeople love talking; great salespeople achieve a good balance between talking and listening and tend to use their side of the conversation to ask questions and steer the discussion towards issues that might be addressed by their products. I actually suggested at one point that I had few expectations and that he should “sell” himself telling me about his strengths and what he expected from the job. My young applicant clearly failed in this endeavor. After a frustrating 15 minutes, I threw him out! — Definitely a waste of my time!

As I say, the secret to successful selling is to ask questions if you want to find out what the customer really needs. Asking questions during a sales call is not being nosy, “makulit,” or pushy. It gives you the opportunity to direct the sales call to cover issues you want to talk about. Interestingly, the customer is usually keen to talk about these issues too as long as he does not feel he is being pushed into a corner to buy something he does not need!

I have heard it stated so many times that questions must be “open”; in other words, questions that demand an answer that goes beyond a simple “yes” or “no.” The rationale behind this is that it forces the customer to divulge more information. I have come across customers who talk too much. Given half the chance, they will drift away from the topic under discussion and provide useless or irrelevant information. Conversely, there are customers who may be hesitant about revealing information. With talkative customers, closed questions can be a good way of getting the maximum information from the client in the shortest possible time. With clients who are reluctant to divulge information, open questions may be more effective.

Remember, the ultimate purpose of asking questions is to uncover your customer’s problems and needs. Uncover the problems first and you are well on the way to finding out what their needs are. However, be careful about jumping in with a solution too soon. Just because a customer admits having problems does not necessarily mean he will be willing to accept your product, service or solution.

As an example, the last time I had toothache, I complained to my wife, daughter, office mates, and friends and associates. Most suggested I waste no more time and see a dentist. Nonetheless, I put off going; there was the cost, time, and inconvenience of getting to a dentist’s office. I was also slightly worried about the pain the dentist might inflict. Lastly, I rather hoped that the problem might go away on its own without me having to spend money!

Customers are no different when it comes to their business problems. Even when they accept that a problem exists, they are often more concerned about issues such as time and cost, implementing and commissioning, training to use a new system, disruption, and a hundred and one other reasons which may have an impact on their decision. This is one of the main reasons why a customer will object to a proffered solutions even when the salesperson knows it would be the most sensible thing for him to do.

There comes a point in a sale where a salesperson needs to steer the conversation away from problems and towards solutions. This should only happen when both salesperson and customer are clear about the problems. The focus needs to subtly switch toward the benefits of solving problems rather than the problems themselves. Care needs to be taken that this stage of the selling process does not turn into a presentation of all of the positive features and advantages of the salesperson’s product. Rather it must show the client what will be achieved by solving the original problems.

All of the foregoing requires the salesperson to engage the customer in an informative and useful conversation. Outgoing, gregarious and interesting salespeople can do this well. My applicant? Failed at the first hurdle!

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.