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.
Whether it’s fair or not, salespeople are often presumed to be self-serving. Some of that reputation has been earned by the way some sellers have behaved. That said, it’s totally acceptable that a salesperson receives a bonus or commission for their efforts. Your incentive just can’t be the primary impetus that’s driving the purchase of your product or service.
Too often, sellers chase deals by focusing on the transaction. “When can we get a PO?” Or they ask, “Do you have all the approvals?” Sometimes, sellers just ask, “Mr. Customer, can we wrap this deal up by the end of the week?”
For those items where the value doesn’t get realized at the point of transaction, like in technology purchases, certain healthcare devices, or when implementing new financial programs, the actual value to the customer may not come until long after the purchase.
In those cases, the question that will ultimately determine the timing of your deal is:
Salesperson: “Ms. Customer, if we look past the purchase decision and transaction for a moment, if you do choose to move forward with this proposal, when would you like to start realizing the benefits we’ve discussed?”
Constructive feedback can be invaluable. How else can you assess how you are progressing in the eyes of your customers, partners, colleagues, employees, or other constituents like family and friends. Asking for feedback is the hard part. Getting an accurate perspective is difficult because people don’t want to hurt your feelings.
The following three questions are guaranteed to generate valuable insight and feedback.
Q: “If you were me, would you be doing anything differently?”
Q: “Do you see a better way to handle this?”
Q: “If you were in my shoes, what approach would you take?”
Humbling oneself to the point where you are able to outwardly admit that you don’t have all the answers is the quickest way to cause other people to open up and share their perspective.
Let me guess…your best sales presentations are the ones that end up being bi-directional, back-and-forth conversations between the salesperson and customer about how your product or service adds value…as opposed to a monologue pitch of features and benefits.
Some customers will jump into the conversation and actively participate. Too often, however, skeptical customers will sit back with their arms folded, essentially causing the presentation to fall flat.
A proactive salesperson can easily prevent this by using a question-based approach that brings customers into the discussion from the onset.
Salesperson: “Thanks everyone for taking time out of your busy schedules. In preparation for today’s meeting, I’ve had several conversations with Robert from Accounting and Lisa in Purchasing in an effort to understand your needs. Although I don’t yet know everything about your business, I have put together some ideas that I think will help.
Frankly, there are a couple of ways we can do this. One options is for me to simply deliver a generic sales presentation. We have lots of PowerPoint slides and I can talk for a long time. Or, we could put aside the standard ‘pitch,’ roll up our sleeves, and have a more specific conversation about how our solutions would impact your business.
Let me throw it out to the group…which would you rather do?”
If you can pause long enough to get an answer, in addition to choosing the more specific second option, they will also breathe a sigh of relief that they don’t have to sit through a standard sales presentation.
Tracking deals on the forecast is important part of any sales role. But, so is managing your sales effectiveness. Managing your selling effectiveness presents some challenges, because it tests your understanding of the softer skills and your ability to adjust to different selling scenarios. The payoff potential is huge!
Sample QBS Coaching Questions:
Q: What are you doing to leverage curiosity throughout the sales process?
Q: What’s your strategy for causing prospects to “want to” share information with someone they don’t yet know or trust?
Q: If the decision comes down to a virtual tie, what makes you different than your competition?
Q: How have you adjusted your sales approach given that prospects and customers are increasingly more standoffishness toward vendors?
Q: What are you doing to increase the prospect’s sense of urgency for moving forward?
For many years, our sales culture has put way too much emphasis on asking lots of questions, as opposed to giving salespeople a clear strategy for what causes prospective customers to “want to” share with someone they don’t yet know or trust.
It’s simple, really. If someone doesn’t want to share with you, it doesn’t matter what questions you ask. On the other hand, as they become more curious and begin to pereive greater value, facilitating productive conversation with potential customers is not difficult at all.
Do you remember synonyms from high school English class? Synonyms are words that have similar meanings, like big and large. Homonyms are words that sound the same, like sense and cents. Antonyms are opposites. So what’s a Vague-O-Nym?
The English language is highly interpretable, as are most types of communication. A vague-o-nym, therefore, is a word or phrase that without additional information or context, doesn’t mean much because it could mean different things.
Suppose for example, a salesperson says to the boss, “We’re gong to get the PO soon.” The sales manager replies, “What do you mean by soon?” A little defensive, the salesperson says, “Hey, I’m just telling you what the customer told me.”
When a customer says, “We plan to make a decision soon.” Are they saying it will take a few days or several weeks? When they say “we,” to whom are they referring? When they say “decision,” are they talking about a technical recommendation or a purchase? Does “plan” refer to a high level strategic plan or an action item for moving forward?
I’m not suggesting that you should dissect everything that’s being said. But, the next time a customer says “quality” or “cost” is very important to them, a good salesperson will realize that without clarifying specific vague-o-nyms, the customer could be referring to any number of different things.
Can changing one word in your question really make a difference?
When people share information, they tend to share fractionally. As a result, there are many opportunities in your everyday conversations to say, “Tell me more.” When interacting with best friends, saying, “Tell me more,” will generally cause people to expound on whatever the topic is that’s being discussed.
For salespeople who are forging new relationships, however, it’s a little different. Notice that the phrase, “Tell me more…” is actually a command. But, if you don’t yet have an in-depth relationship, commanding a prospective customer to “tell you more” can sound a bit presumptuous.
Instead, ask, “How do you mean?”
Try this experiment. Next time someone says or asks you something, simply respond by saying, “How do you mean?” If you button up, they will share two, three, four, or five paragraphs of additional information. That’s a pretty good return on investment in response to four words, don’t you think?
Of course, a grammarian who sits through our training will often point out that “What do you mean?” is more grammatically correct. That’s true! I’m just more focused on increasing the productivity of my conversations than conforming to grammar rules.
Here’s the difference. Asking, “What do you mean?”, generally causes people to go backwards in the conversation, by revisiting or justifying what they just said. But in sales, we’re not wanting to go backward. Rather, we want the other person to share more detail.
By asking, “How do you mean?”, you won’t have to worry about grammar. Whenever you deliver these four words, what people really hear is: “I am very interested in what you just said, can you please tell me more?”
Do people like it when you’re interested in what they have to say? Yes, absolutely!
Salespeople have been taught to probe for needs, because they want to find out what is important to the customer. While focusing on the customer’s concerns is a noble goal, be careful because asking questions that are overly rhetorical is one of the quickest ways to erode your credibility and end the conversation.
For example, here are some DON’Ts:
“Mr. Customer, is value important to you?”
“I bet quality and integrity are also important decision factors, aren’t they?”
“Most customers want to make a smart choice, wouldn’t you agree?”
To all of these, I say, “Duh!”
Instead of asking questions that seem rhetorical, salesy, or patronizing, try asking:
“Mr. Customer, knowing that most customers want to make the best overall decision, besides the obvious goals of quality, integrity, and securing the best value, what specifically are you wanting to accomplish with this purchase?”