You know those wonderful in-flight magazines that keep passengers occupied and entertained while stranded on the tarmac? Well, I trained the sales team for Ink Publishing earlier this year in London. They are the company that produces most of the leading in-flight magazines. As a result of their sales training, Ink Publishing has featured me and Question Based Selling in an article called "Selling Points", to appear in Go Magazine, which will be in the seatback pocket of every Air Tran Airways flight starting January 1st.
Not scheduled for an Air Tran Airways flight any time soon? You can simply download the article right here. Hope you enjoy!
Not every opportunity is good for both parties, and thus not every deal is worth chasing. But, be careful disqualifying potential opportunities too early. Sometimes you have to say "No" before you can come to terms.
One of my best current clients (at first) rejected almost every point in the engagement agreement we use to schedule and confirm QBS events. My price was too high, they didn’t want to provide a wireless lapel microphone, their company’s expense policy was overtly stringent, and host of other gotchas.
My initial instinct was to try and work through the details in order to find common ground that would allow us to move forward. "There is no middle ground," was the response I got from the Development Manager. So, after pondering the predicament for a couple hours, I sent an email respectfully declining the opportunity.
My wife suggested that I was crazy to walk away from such a big company. But to me, when it becomes clear that we are not working toward a mutual solution, I would rather decline the opportunity than have an unhappy customer.
Lo and behold, the client immediately came back to me apologizing for a "misunderstanding," and within a few minutes, we came to terms on literally everything in the contract. When I look back, I have experienced many situations where if I wasn’t willing to say, "No," the customer would not have been so quick to say, "Yes."
There are different ways to say, "No," however, which is why I dedicated an entire chapter in my second book to the concept of "Delivering Bad News Gracefully." (Excerpt below).
Delivering Bad News Gracefully
Particularly in larger deals, after you have already negotiated your best and final price, what do you do when the prospect starts hitting you up for additional discounts? Do you say, "No," or do you just cave in to every client request.
Giving prospects everything they ask for is a bad strategy because the more you give, the more they will want, until the deal becomes bad business for you and your company. But for salespeople, saying, "No," can be a frightening proposition because it represents that moment of truth in the sale where prospects will either move forward with a decision to purchase or turn their backs and walk away.
Therefore, sellers must know when giving a little extra will help to consummate a sale, and they also have to know when to say, "There is no more to give." This doesn’t make delivering the actual bad news any easier, however.
Saying "No" is difficult because it puts you on the other side of the argument. The prospect is essentially asking for your help, in the form of either a lower price or free add-ons, and you are essentially telling them, "No, I am no longer willing to help."
Communicating that you are "no longer willing to help" is not the message you want to convey at the end of a sale, especially when you are trying to make prospects feel comfortable enough to pull the trigger on a favorable decision. Fortunately there is an alternative, a way that allows you to deliver bad news gracefully.
The technique is simple. If a prospect asks for something that is unreasonable or beyond what you are willing to provide as part of the sales transaction, you simply start your response with, "I’d be happy to…" For example, if you have already negotiated down to your best and final price and the prospect says, "We need another 10% off the price." With this technique, you can confidently begin your response saying, "I’d be happy to take another 10% off the price…" Now, this is not the entire answer because this analogy assumes that the buyer is asking for something you are not willing or able to provide.
Here’s the rest of the answer. After saying, "I would be happy to take another 10% off the price…", you simply add, "…but here’s the problem. We don’t have another 10% discount to give." I would reiterate that we want their business very much, but I would also be very direct in explaining that there was no extra ‘fluff’ built into the price from which to provide additional discounts.
The beauty of this technique is when you deliver the bad news gracefully you no longer have to be bad guy. You no longer have to be the one who says, "No, I am not going to help you." While this approach allows you to be very direct in communicating that there is no extra room for discounting, you are softening the blow. You can still provide value to your customers by suggesting, "Mr. Prospect, if budget is the issue, perhaps we could remove certain line items from the proposal to reduce the bottom line price." Or, "Since your project includes a second and third phase, perhaps we could bundle the entire purchase together to make the deal size bigger, which would give us some additional room to provide discounts."
This technique for delivering bad news gracefully has many practical applications in real life. For example: "Son, I would be happy to do your math homework for you…but here’s the problem. I’m not the one who will be taking the math test on Friday."
"Honey, I would be happy to buy you a new diamond necklace…but here’s the problem. In order to spend that much money on jewelry, we would have to dip into the kid’s college fund."
"Jim, I’d be happy to be an usher in church next Sunday…but here’s the problem. I will be flying in from London next Sunday morning."
You will find that there is a huge difference between saying, "No," and saying, "I would be happy to, but…" Simply re-phrasing your response allows you to deliver your bad news more gracefully. At the end of the day, you will be much more successful in sales (and in life) if you can position your words so you spend less time on the other side of the argument.
–Thomas A. Freese
This month’s issues of Go Magazine, Air Tran’s in-flight publication, features a two page spread of yours truly. After training the sales tea of the magazine’s publisher in London back in October, one thing led to another and now I get to watch other passengers read about me on my flight tomorrow to DC. Very cool, and hopefully informative. Check it out for yourself HERE.
Check out the Jan issue of Go Magazine, Air Tran’s in-flight publication. After training In Publishing’s sales team (the magazine’s publisher) in London back in October, one thing led to another and I am now being featured on a two page spread in the January issue on pages 90 – 91.
Tomorrow, I get to watch other passengers read about me on my flight to DC. Very cool, and hopefully informative. Check it out for yourself HERE.
When I first started out in sales, I always felt like an underdog. I was scratching and clawing to make ends meet, and each sales opportunity seemed like a battle. Honestly, it was overwhelming on many occasions to feel like an under-achiever.
It turns out that people respond to pressure in different ways. Some people, when they start to feel overwhelmed, fade into the background, not wanting to bring attention to the fact that they are struggling. As for me, increased pressure tends to make me more indignant. If I am going to fail at something, I would rather go down in flames.
Thus, on January 1, 1988, I made a career-changing New Year’s resolution. I had just finished yet another mediocre sales year, and damn it, it wasn’t going to happen again. So, I headed to the office on New Years Day. While everyone else nursed their post New Year’s Eve party hangovers, and watched college football, I cleaned out my office. I worked the entire day and got seriously organized.
It was no surprise that my SUV was the only car in the parking lot since it was a holiday. But by the time I left the office, I felt a very clear sense of satisfaction and preparedness. I was ready for the New Year.
Have you ever noticed how good it feels to be ahead of the game? That first week of January, everyone else was trying to catch up, while I was moving forward and feeling productive. In fact, it felt so good that it motivated me to want to stay ahead. Consequently, I often stayed at the office late into the evening and came in frequently on weekends, each time noticing that mine was the only car in the parking lot.
My strategy was simple. I was determined to outwork everyone else on the sales team. That way, if I did fail, I wouldn’t have any excuses. Besides putting in the time, I also made it a goal to work harder than everyone else. I made more cold calls than anyone else and scheduled more appointments. I also asked more questions in order to uncover more needs. I even made it a point to take the most notes at every meeting.
After a very short period of time, I had become more knowledgeable about our product offerings and target industry, which in turn, made me a much more credible resource to my prospects and customers. As the year progressed, I began to feel less overwhelmed and more in control.
It didn’t take long before I became the “go to” guy in the office. When someone had a question, they came to me for help. Lo and behold, the sales manager started sending opportunities my way, knowing they would be handled with a greater sense of urgency. By year-end, I had become the top producing salesperson in our office. Essentially, I had earned the right to outperform everyone else whose car wasn’t parked in the lot back on New Year’s Day.
*Excerpted my second book, It Only Takes 1% to have a Competitive Edge in Sales.
2009 was a difficult business year for many. If you were fortunate enough to not among the masses who saw declining opportunities as the result of a recent back-flip in the economy, I’m sure you have customers, friends, colleagues, employees, or coworkers who have felt the impact in a very personal way.
Perhaps the economic gods with wave a wand and return everything to normalcy. Me, I’m not sure what normal is at the moment, nor have I ever been one to bet my lot on magic.
I have said before, “The best way out of any recession is to sell your way out.” The difference this time is the game of selling has changed—I call it a Darwinian-style recalibration, where the salesperson will play a more important role in their own success than ever before.
With that, I hope you enjoyed a nice holiday break with your friends and family. But, please realize that the new sales year begins tomorrow. Me, I might dedicate some time to get a jump on the competition because who knows, they might be reading this as well!
At the risk of overstating the obvious, let’s suppose you enjoyed cooking and you wanted to make a delicious cake. Then, you would need a good recipe. A bad recipe would likely produce an unsatisfactory result.
Be aware that a “recipe” actually consists of two component parts. The first part is an ingredients list, right? I mean, to bake a decent cake, you need certain ingredients like eggs, flour, sugar, water, oil, and possibly rum. An effective recipe also requires a procedure for implementation. For example, if you take a cake out of the oven after baking 35 minutes at 375 degrees, and then you add the flour, you get a ‘dusty’ omelet.
What ingredients are necessary to be successful and consistent in sales? The Conversational Layering model is an important concept in Question Based Selling because it disrupts traditional thinking.
In traditional selling approaches, the first step is either relationship building or uncovering needs. These are important ingredients to be sure. However, in today’s increasingly competitive environment, you have to first earn the right to have a relationship and uncover needs.
Ironically, the two most important ingredients in the sales process, and prerequisites for being successful in sales, also happen to be the two least talked about subjects in sales training over the last thirty years—piquing curiosity & earning credibility.
I like to say it this way. If a prospect or customer is not the least bit curious about who you are or what you can do for them, and they don’t think you are a valuable resource, then chances are pretty slim that they would want to engage in a conversation about their needs or your offerings. Conversely, the extent to which you are able to induce curiosity and establish your own credibility will largely determine your effectiveness in sales.
Voice-mail and email are very effective communication tools. As such, your target list of prospects and customers is being inundated with voice-mails and email messages from your direct competitors, in addition to any number of other vendors who compete with you indirectly—for budget dollars.
The are only two reasons people respond to voice and email messages—obligation and curiosity. If your boss calls and leaves a message, you will likely return the call. If your largest customer calls, you will surely return their call as well, because that’s what you do when you have important customers, or a boss.
But, what about decision makers who don’t feel “obligated” to return cold calls from vendors? Besides obligation, the only other thing that causes people to return voice-mail messages or email is curiosity.
The challenge is, most voice-mails and email messages that get lobbed into potential decision makers do more to satisfy their curiosity than create it. Oops! As a result, the average return call rate on voice-mail has dropped below 5%, and the odds of getting replies to email can be just as bleak.
Sample messages of Curiosity Inducing Voice-mails:
i.) “Hi, George, this is Pat Wilkins calling from Dynamic Systems—I’m on the team that works with industrial accounts in Central Florida. I was on a conference call with one of our products managers last Wednesday afternoon just after lunch, and two issues came up that I thought might impact your current manufacturing platform, one of which is time sensitive. I wanted to be proactive and try to catch you in the office this afternoon. If you get a chance today, could you please call me back at (770) 123-4567? I should be here until around 5:30pm.”
ii) “Hi, Dale, this is Lane Patterson with HLM Corporation. I’m on the team that supports healthcare accounts for the Midwest region. I was hoping to catch you for a minute because we’ve had 13 new announcements in the last three and a half months, two of which I believe might impact your diagnostic assessments under the new legislation. If you get a chance today, could you please call me at (770) 123-4567?”
(iii) “Hi, Steve, this is Joe Tomlin calling from Templeton Partners. I manage a team that works with financial brokers in the tri-cities area. A note came across my desk yesterday morning that caught my eye regarding (insert something relevant) and I wanted to try and catch up with you today if possible. When you get a chance, could you please call me at (770) 123-4567?”
Key Point: If I sent 5 different voice-mails or email messages, they would have five different sets of words depending on what information I had about the account, my purpose for calling, and the objective of the call. But in every case, my intention would be to leave (or send) a purposeful message, that was specific and relevant. Do that in your business, and you can easily realize a 50%+ response rate, which represents a whopping 1000% increase over industry averages.
Sellers are encouraged to ask specific qualifying questions, most notably about decision makers, timeframe, and budget. A fine line exists between appropriately qualifying an opportunity and probing too invasively.
To minimize the risk of being shut down by a defensive prospect, and to maximize the quality of the information you receive, you simply precede your most delicate questions with a humbling disclaimer.
A humbling disclaimer creates a permission of sorts which makes it easy for the salesperson to ask, and also paves the way for the other person to be more receptive to the question. For example:
Salesperson: “Mr. Customer, I don’t want to overstep my boundaries and ask too many questions, but I would like to understand the big picture before recommending a solution. Do you mind if I ask a couple of specifics about how this project might impact your long-range growth plans?”
Other examples of humbling disclaimers include:
Salesperson: “I’m not sure the best way to ask, but would you mind if…”
“Without stepping on anyone’s toes, would it be okay if we…”
“I don’t want to step out of bounds, but would it be too forward to ask…”
Key Point: If you are respectful of someone else’s right to not to share with you, it’s amazing how much information you can get. Humility is a very attractive human quality, and one that people are naturally drawn toward. Thus, you can significantly enhance the value of the responses you receive by strategically preceding your most sensitive questions with a humbling disclaimer. Simply put, causing people to “want to” share more information with you gives you a strategic advantage over other sellers who are just out there probing for needs.
For decades, salespeople have been taught that open-ended questions are the best tools for causing prospects to “open up.” This thinking is incorrect. In fact, asking for too much too soon is one of the quickest ways to cause someone to shut down and not share anything with you.
Open-ended questions can be valuable conversational tools, but only after you have successfully piqued someone’s interest and have established some credibility. Hence, in QBS, a technique called Diagnostic Questions becomes the most effective way to kick off your needs development conversations.
Salesperson: “Can I ask you a couple specifics about _________?”
Customer: “Sure, go ahead.”
The first question is the easiest part. At some point in most sales conversations, there will be an opportunity for discovery. When these opportunities to ask questions arise, there is only one time in Question Based Selling where I recommend exact wording (above). Basically, you are asking permission. This is a low risk approach.
Once the customer grants you permission (99%), you ask a series of short-answer questions to understand specific facts about their current situation. Selling technology, for example, you might ask:
Salesperson: “How many servers do you currently have installed?”
“Supporting how many users?”
“In how many locations?”
“Do you manage the network in-house, or do you outsource?”
“How many engineers do you have on staff?”
“How many are Microsoft certified?”
Within a short time window (generally less than 60 seconds), this technique of Diagnostic Questions enables the strategic salesperson to kick off needs development conversations in a non-threatening manner, gather valuable information that guides the conversation, establish credibility as a valuable resource, and earn the right to transition into more depth.
From here, you can easily broaden the Scope to ask open-ended questions
In the process of developing Question Based Selling, I have invested significant time and effort studying Conversational Dynamics, which refers to the science not just of ‘what’ you might choose to say, but also ‘how’ you choose to say it.
Once you have successfully piqued the customer’s interest and established your own credibility, using Diagnostic Questions, there are certain conversational devices we call broadening agents that will expand the scope of the dialogue. These include:
Q: “How familiar are you with _____________?”
Q: “To what extent is ____________ important to your project?”
Q: “What types of __________ are you focusing on the most?”
Essentially, the deliverer of the question is asking the other person to quantify, describe, or characterize their thoughts regarding a given issue or topic.
Key Point: Since you, as the salesperson, are ultimately in control of the questions you ask, how you formulate and deliver the question will likely how productively prospects and customers will choose to respond.