Getting What You Want (Just Ask!)
Asking questions. It's one of the most important things you can do.
Whether in a one-on-one
conversation, addressing a group, or by "remote control" to a mass audience via a printed
or web survey, a successful outcome depends upon your ability to pose smart
questions. Just how important is it to be the one asking those smart questions? It's vital. In
a sales situation, the person asking the questions is the one in control of the
transaction. Unfortunately, most salespeople talk WAY too much. Telling isn't
selling. Asking appropriate, insightful questions is crucial to guiding the
client/customer to a satisfying decision and purchase. A strategic consultant
cannot be successful unless he/she asks "disturbing" questions that will move a
client off "top dead center." (Savvy consultants know that making clients
uncomfortable is the only way to institute meaningful change – and the only way
to secure a consulting contract of value.) For a business owner, gaining a deep
understanding of the needs, wants, and preferences of prospects and customers is
vital. Beyond the direct economic considerations, there are all the
interpersonal/social reasons to be a great question-asker. Asking shows that
you're intelligent enough to pose smart questions, that you're interested in the other person, and that you value their opinion. Unfortunately, a lot of people chicken
out and only ask "safe" questions, or none at all – falling back to their rote
elevator speech or "pitch." But this is not for you. A savvy businessperson or
accomplished professional will play this game at a much higher level.
If you skip the step of asking questions,
you're reduced to working on a set of often erroneous assumptions about
the other person's real needs and interests. But asking truly great
questions will open a window into the mind of your "customer" and provide
you with the crucial knowledge to "close the sale" (whatever that means in
your particular business, or in your private life). It's not just about
gaining knowledge. By asking questions, you are actually able to direct the other person's thinking. We humans
are programmed (either genetically or developmentally, I'm not sure) to provide
an answer when asked a direct question. It's almost impossible to NOT supply
Stupid Sales Questions
I lay no claim to being a master salesman. Oh, I've closed my share of huge
deals, but there are lots of folks better suited to advise you in this area. Jeffrey Gitomer comes to
mind. I love his observations about the inane questions asked in a sales call.
There's this really stupid dance: "Did you get the proposal I sent?" "Do you
have any questions about it?" That's not what the sales guy wants to
know. Jeffrey clues us in on what the real question is: "Is the money ready? Can
I come over right now and pick up the check?" The "Did you get, do you
have…" statements are standard sales-speak, not real questions. Here's an
example of a great question, related to me by my friend Herb Hoffman, and
attributed to sales pro Chuck Healy. The question: "How's that going for you?" When a man says his brother-in-law already handles his investments, the casual
reply should be "How's that going for you?" Then you shut up. By asking this
non-threatening, open-ended question, you'll often be treated to a mini-rant
that'll lead to a creative problem solving dialogue.
There's a fine line between personal interest and nosiness. I'm sure you
know some people who are so "straight" there could never be a
personal conversation with them. No small talk. No attempt at rapport. Right
down to business. It's reasonably clear that you're not going to develop any
sort of meaningful human relationship with that kind of person. On the other end
of the spectrum is the stranger who keeps asking about stuff that makes you
uncomfortable. Of course, there's a happy middle place. If you want to build a
strong business relationship with someone, you have to go beyond business talk.
You have to ask appropriate, tactful questions about that person's life outside
of the office. Family, personal interests, books and movies enjoyed, charities
supported, etc. Just be careful to avoid the classic no-no's: religion and
politics – until you know the other person really well. Even when talk gets down
to business, you still have to watch the manner and content of your dialogue. While
people are usually flattered by your interest as expressed by your questioning,
don't take it too far. Nobody wants to feel like they're in a deposition. That's
why you have to moderate your questioning with comfortable pauses. Anyone who's
done any public speaking knows that you can't talk nonstop. Your audience needs
time to process and assimilate the information you're giving them. Same thing
when you're one-on-one. Don't rapid-fire your questions. Ask good ones, and
allow silent time for the person to respond. Don't be so quick to embellish,
change or refire your question. Resist the urge to fill in "pregnant pauses."
This takes practice.
The lazy person's approach to questioning is to memorize a laundry list of
questions and deliver them by rote. While better than nothing, this is far
inferior to being interactive in your questioning. The master questioner is a
student of people. He or she is a keen observer and an active listener, able to
shift focus and customize the line of questions to fit each unique situation. Having said that, the foundation is poured when you have internalized a set of
appropriate generic questions. For example:
- How long has this problem existed? What have you done in the past that's been most successful? Which solutions have you considered so far?
- Where do you find the most errors occurring?
- How often does that cause…? What effect does that have on…? When does it lead to…? How would a more efficient … change things?
- What will happen if things don't improve?
- How much would you save if…" If your cycle time was reduced by 35%, how would that improve throughput?
What other ways would this help to…?
- If your … expenses were reduced by 18%, how much would that save you each month?
As I'm sure you know, questions come in many flavors: open-ended versus
closed, leading questions, hypothetical questions, etc. Rule #1 is to avoid posing "closed"
questions which can be answered in one word. "Are you satisfied with your
current vendor?" "Yes." Silence. Much better to ask, "How, why, where, what,
when, and who" questions that require a more verbose response: "What is your
vendor selection process?" "Who else is involved in the decision?" "Why did you
choose XYZ over ABC last time?" Leading questions take the person from where they are to where you want them
to be. If you're an attorney, the judge won't be happy if you're "leading the
witness" – Objection! – but a properly structured leading question (outside the
courtroom) can land you a great new client. Great example: "How much is that problem costing
you?" Hypothetical questions can be excellent, if you frame them right. A hypothetical
allows the other person to "blue sky," and gives you great insight into his or
her true desires. "If you had no budgetary or time constraints, how would that
change things?" A related tool is the "magic wand" question. Ask your
prospective client/customer/patient: "Fred, if this situation was absolutely
perfect in every regard, what would it look like?" You're giving Fred the
permission to imagine his ideal future. Give him the time to do that. Don't
interrupt or interject. Remain silent after asking the question, and just wait.
Then listen carefully. If you've asked this in the right way (i.e. in the
natural flow of conversation, rather than as part of your canned "sales
presentation"), Fred will provide you with a roadmap to take him from where he
is to where he wants to be. Then it's up to you to figure out how your product
or service (or whatever) will take him there... or at least get him a lot closer
than he is now.
Since this article has veered into sales territory, I need to stop and do a
reality check before I start losing readership. Let me ask you a very direct
question: "Are you in sales?" Yes or no? If you answered no, I beg to differ. We
are all in sales. No matter what your profession or job title, you are in sales.
"Sales" means influencing other people to do what you want. Convincing your
teenager to clean his room is sales. Landing a sponsor for your fund-raising
event is sales. Getting your co-workers to support your project is sales. And on
and on. From the time the alarm clock goes off each AM until you fall back to
sleep, you are negotiating, communicating, persuading, and influencing everyone
you interact with. You are seeking cooperation, consensus, and commitment. You
cannot be successful if you're unable to achieve these things. (I don't know any
top executives who are not terrific salespeople.) Unfortunately, the "selling
profession" is held in rather low esteem. Many people, particularly
lawyers and doctors, feel there's a stigma around selling. Personally, I find it
refreshing to meet a "Relationship Manger" or "Account Executive" who actually
has the title "Salesman" on his business card. I like salespeople (OK, not all
of them). Great salespeople are the engine of our economy. As "Red" Motley says, "Nothing Happens Until Somebody Sells Something." Salespeople (whether they have
that actual title or something more euphemistic), are the key people in any
organization. They keep the ball moving down the field and create the demand for
all the products and services that keep everyone else employed.
The Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Question
So: next question. It isn't whether or not you're in sales; it's "Are you any
good at it?"
Maybe you are and maybe you're not. If you're good, you've probably
mastered "Gap Analysis." That means understanding where the other person is now
and where they want to be in the future – then crafting a presentation that
exploits that "gap." Unsuccessful salespeople are product-focused. They
passionately believe in the wonderfulness of their thing – and are often
frustrated when others don't seem to share their passion. Fact is, other people
couldn't care less about your thing. Their interest in you and your thing starts
and ends with what you and it can do for them. Those successful in sales
recognize that people make buying decisions based on anticipation. Customers
anticipate how they'll feel as a result of acquiring and enjoying your product
or service. If that feeling isn't very strong, and the price is
high, the sale ain't gonna happen. The excellent salesperson understands his or
her job is to make the customer feel the anticipated benefit (pleasure) will be
greater than the pain of parting with their money. Make no mistake, that
pain/pleasure balance exists in *every* sale.
Feeling Versus Thinking: Gender Perspectives
Don't ask a man how he *feels* about something. You'll make him
uncomfortable. However, if you ask a man what he *thinks* about something,
he'll tell you how he feels about it. Conversely, if you ask a woman how
she feels about something, she'll tell you what she thinks.
The Human Condition
Let's talk about dissatisfaction. I think it's the human condition to be in a
constant state of dissatisfaction. There's always something that can be made
better, cheaper, more enjoyable, more beautiful, tastier, whatever. We're on a
perpetual quest to improve things… by eliminating the bad and enhancing the
good. That's the basis of the "gap." It's your job to identify the
dissatisfaction, measure the size of the gap, and determine if a solution you
can provide will bridge the gap. Master salespeople are adept at actually
w_i_d_e_n_i_n_g the dissatisfaction gap – in the prospect's mind. They can take a
narrow gap, a mild sense of dissatisfaction, and expand it in to a veritable
chasm of despair. They're able, through their questioning and commenting, to
elevate the problem to an excruciating level of "pain" requiring immediate
relief. For many products, the gap is obvious. The copier is slow and makes poor
quality copies. People line up to use it, killing productivity, and then they
complain about the fuzzy, smudged copies. The machine often jams and each
service call is expensive. In this situation, it wouldn't take a sales superstar
to close the deal on a new copier. The essential questions to be asked lie right
on the surface.
The Non-Obvious Gap
However, most Urbach Letter readers aren't copier salespeople. You are more
likely an attorney, technical specialist, physician, accountant, entrepreneur,
or executive. Your "sales" environment is quite sophisticated. You probably deal
with high-level decision makers and must fit your "solution" to a more complex
situation. You must therefore seek to understand the decision maker's mindset
and concerns. Your gap analysis questions will often revolve around nontangibles.
How is that person rewarded? What does he or she have to do to achieve the
high-level goals of the organization? How can he or she obtain support from
employees, colleagues, and superiors? In what ways is he or she respected? You
must know that one of a person's most deep-seated needs is that for self-esteem.
Particularly for those in "C-Level" positions, what is often uppermost in their
minds is the approval and appreciation of people around them and above them. If
your questions address the factors which affect the person's standing among
peers and superiors, you are going to have his or her undivided attention.