TypewriterFrom The Urbach Letter September 2008

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Yes or No Cartoon

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.

Mind Control

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 one.

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.

Getting Personal
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:

Background Questions

  • 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?

Gap Openers

  • 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?

Payback Questions

  • 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?

Question-Asking 101
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.

Reality Check
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.

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