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How good questioning leads to great sales...

First, a short and true story…

I accompanied one of our client’s Account Managers (“one of our best guys – great at managing relationships”, according to the Sales Director) on his first visit to a customer just inherited from a departing colleague. Our client has one of the most instantly recognisable brands in its sector and the customer in this instance was a huge U.S. services business.

We were surprised to hear that our key contact was shortly to be leaving the company and we were joined by the manager due to replace him. We were also joined by the Procurement Manager. It looked interesting to me. A new Account Manager and three of his customer’s contacts in a room with very different agendas. A good opportunity you might think? Investigate the agendas. Find out what they think – how they see things – and position himself as the person to move things forward positively with the right solutions … Unfortunately that wasn’t what happened … What actually happened during a 2 hour meeting was:

  • He spent ¾ of his time talking to the current contact
  • He almost completely ignored the heir-apparent
  • He ‘talked over’ people much of the time – especially the Procurement Manager who was dying to have his say and flex his muscles
  • Most of all, in over 2 hours, he asked four questions – and three of those were ‘closed’ questions.

It was amazing that I had enamel left on my teeth after that meeting…!!

 

The heart of the problem…

The fact is that there are too many people out there (including salespeople) who spend most of their lives in a ‘comfort zone’ talking about their products and services to people who may/may not understand them. They just talk at customers hoping that the sale happens. The key gap is that the person on the ground doesn’t get to understand his/her customer’s business and therefore cannot connect the company’s services and products to the customer’s business needs.

 

The real world position…

In different, more buoyant, times, with proven products to call upon, and customers with big budgets to spend, eye-catching sums of money have been earned by people who have been riding the crest of the wave and taking orders. But that ‘wave’ looks a little different now doesn’t it?

The business people (those we might call ‘budget-setters’ as opposed to ‘budget-spenders’) insist on seeing proof of where and how the products will deliver a real return on investment for their business before they will consider parting with their cash. The inevitable conclusion is therefore: no demonstrable return on investment and no sale.

So what do we need to consider?

  • If we are to provide the highly necessary proof, we must understand, intimately, where and how our product delivers great business value for our customer
  • But, we will not get to this understanding without delving deeply into the quantifiable needs and wants of our customer. ‘Needs’ are logically-based; ‘wants’ are emotionally-based. There is some more information on this below.

We must therefore get altogether smarter with our questions… Let me explain what this amounts to…

“The greatest enemy of communication is the illusion of it.” – Pierre Martineau.

 

Preparation (avoiding the ‘waste of space’ syndrome)

It seems pretty straightforward really, bordering on the bland even – take an interest in your customer’s business. Our niche is the business-to-business sector, and we consistently find that our clients’ people know little more than the obvious headline stuff about their customers. In the example above you will, I’m sure, have spotted that the Account Manager who is “great at managing relationships” knew nothing about his key contact’s imminent departure until we pitched up on the doorstep. A little bit of advance communication prior to the visit would surely have picked that fact up?

Frankly, if you are not interested – (really, genuinely, interested – not just lip-service) in your customer’s business what ARE you doing in there? You’re a waste of space. If you aspire to be more than a waste of space, some ‘starter-for-ten’ examples of customer-related issues you might want to ponder on are these:

  • What does your customer’s business really look like today? (E.g. Size. Market position. Profitability. Business unit structure, etc.)
  • What do they sell? Not just headline products and services, but value propositions too
  • Who are their competitors? Where and how are they a threat to your customer?
  • Who and what are the influencers and sources of pressure within their industry?
  • How has your customer’s business grown? (In a numerical sense – but also in an organic and/or acquisitive sense)
  • What are their business plans for the future?

Not comfortable with these types of questions? Then either:

  • Get comfortable with them quickly – or –
  • Get another job!

Preparing to sell – our key areas of focus

In relation to the information gained above, we now need to think carefully about:

  • What we are likely to be able to deliver for our customer and where it will add real business value for them
  • What information we need – i.e. what we must question for, to isolate the customer’s quantifiable needs and wants for what our products/services can potentially deliver
  • Getting to understand the customer’s ‘how’ and ‘whom’ in relation to making a buying decision which favours us.

‘Judge a man by his questions, not by his answers’ – Voltaire

 

The core of good selling: questions in relation to our ‘Sales Propositions’

The key elements of our services and products need to be considered and captured in relation to how they could be advantageous to different types of decision-influencer within the customer’s organisation, as well as who we will be competing with.

Questions should be prepared which allow us to gradually and conversationally explore where the needs and wants might be for what we can do well, and where the cost/pain/inconvenience/wasted time/personal preference/competitive pressure, etc, is.

When presenting our solution later in the cycle we will reinforce how we will address these problems and pressures with suitable pre-prepared ‘proofs’.

Each of the above should be grouped together. Specifically:

  1. The features and advantages of our service/product for which we will identify the customer’s needs & wants with our questions
  2. The questions we will ask to identify these needs & wants, which will ultimately allow us to present the business benefits to the customer.

We run pretty intensive workshops on this subject, sometimes of several days’ duration, so I can’t do justice to the detail in a short article – but here are some guidelines:

  • ‘Group’ your analysis of your Sales Propositions to reflect:
    • The ‘headline’ description of what the individual proposition does
    • The challenges/problems/pain which we need to establish (via our questions of course)
    • Some of the kinds of question we intend to ask to flush out and quantify the challenges/problems/pain
      • Try to ensure that the early questions for each of our Proposition groupings are quite broad and open and only loosely connected with the subject matter. (“How is the business performing?”)
      • Use more searching, ‘leading’ questions only when you have plenty of information, gained from the answers to the broader question/s (“That’s interesting, what has to happen in a technology sense to support the business? “What kinds of demands is that putting on you and your people?)
      • Put the ‘groupings’ in some kind of logical sequence – although you may need to be flexible and move them around according to how the conversation progresses and the information you glean.

 

Why people buy…

We often use the ‘iceberg’ analogy when considering why the customer actually ‘buys’. At the tip of the iceberg, above the water, are the logically-based ‘needs’. These are generally openly declared. To be a contender for the business you must be able to satisfy them. Typically, ‘needs’ include issues such as timescales, budgets, resource capability and references. They are important of course, but these days you can often respond to them by e-mail!

The bulk of the iceberg is under the surface and this is where the emotionally-based ‘wants’ are submerged. These are not always obvious. They often don’t land in your lap, and so it’s usually much harder to identify them – but they are invariably very big drivers in buying decisions. If we are serious about selling a meaningful solution we must understand them (really understand them), and the solution we ultimately present must reflect them one way or another.

Some examples, from a very long list of wants, include:

  • Kudos (being made a hero within the organisation)
  • Ego
  • Company politics
  • ‘Not invented here’ (i.e. his/her idea)
  • Security/insecurity
  • Control
  • The leading edge ‘pioneer’ (i.e. the person who wants to be seen as the innovator)
  • Personal chemistry.

 

What are you really selling?

“What we sell is the ability for a 43 year-old accountant to dress in black leather, ride through small towns, and have people be afraid of him.” – Harley-Davidson Executive.

As we know that emotion has a lot to do with why our customer buys it ought to get us thinking more about what it is that we are really selling. In an era of increasing commoditisation, people are buying-into products which have what you could call ‘emotional appeal’. Examples of emotional appeal themes might be: control; change; freedom, recognition, and care.

In our day-to-day lives continental mineral water is an example of this. The premium many of us will pay for ‘free range’ eggs is another and this is a great example of ‘care’ emotional appeal. An illustration of the ‘control’ theme is a mobile phone network providing the means to control our life. It could be said that people buy ‘North Face’ clothing to identify with those pioneers climbing Mount Everest (freedom).

 

Solutions and problems

Revelation of the day: we just love talking about our products and services don’t we? After all, it’s what we know. It’s where we’re comfortable. It’s much easier to prattle on about how wonderful our products are than to appear ‘impolite’ by asking probing, incisive questions about the customer and his business (to identify important issues which our solution is supposed to address!)

Also, while we’re ‘in the seat’, so to speak, the pressure is on us. The customer doesn’t have to acknowledge too many gaps and problems — he can just sit back and watch the show…!!

Once the preparation is complete, our ability to provide a solution is only as good as our ability to identify the problem. And it often takes courage to ask the questions, which identify the problem.

It has been said that reasons for making decisions sit under one of two headings:

  • Avoiding pain
  • Pursuing gain

The motivation to get away from pain is normally more immediate than the motivation to pursue gain. The comments the customer makes will indicate which of these is appropriate. Those under the first heading will talk about problems and frustrations with varying degrees of emphasis. Those in the second camp will be more inclined to emphasise the result or outcome they seek.

We should listen carefully to the answers to our questions to begin to understand the real nature of the problem. The basis of these questions was covered in part one of this article. Beyond this, there are two pitfalls in particular to avoid:

  1. Responding too readily to the customer’s early request for a solution. (“Can you help us with xx?” What we need is xxxxx..”) This early request is not in itself a bad thing, but to provide the most meaningful solution we must work hard to understand the full extent of the problem and all that lies underneath it. (“I’m sure we can help you with xx, but it would help me to understand what results you think can be achieved…” It’s encouraging to hear your interest but what are you trying to achieve by…..?”)
  2. Based on early signs and comments – making the assumption that you already know what the problem is (probably because you’ve heard it many times before) and launching off into a detailed description of what you can do for them. This is a classic mistake and the solution is to observe a principle we call the ‘N.A.F.O.F.’ principle: ‘Never Assume Find Out First’
Skills

Posted on

September 4, 2015

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