Friday, February 28, 2014

Directing the Conversation with Questions

A Question from the Sales Team:
How do I discover information without asking rude and possibly offensive questions?

Leading questions can uncover answers worth celebrating!
I regularly coach salespeople to learn more about their customers.  I often reference a bit from Harvey MacKay’s book from the 1980’s “How to Swim with Sharks without being Eaten Alive”, called the MacKay 66.  It’s basically a 66-question list of things to discover about your customer.  It covers all things personal as well as their thoughts around their company, job and career goals.  Quite honestly, it’s an exhaustive list.  But… I believe a salesperson armed with this information will outperform their competitors. 

And, since I have received the same question from several of my clients’ salespeople in the past few weeks, I feel compelled to address the topic.

One young salesperson stated point blank, “I have been thinking about the questions you have asked me to discover with customers and I am afraid that some of them border on offensive.  I don’t see how I can subject my customers to a game of twenty questions on every visit.”  He makes a good point.  The idea with questions is not necessarily to sit down and interrogate; the point is to prime ourselves to listen better.  More importantly, we need to actively listen.

When we know what our questions are, we are free to listen better.  The pressure to think of the next question is diminished.  We’re able to learn more from our customers and direct the conversation to areas which provide us with the right stuff to enhance the solutions we offer up in future sales calls. 

While this is not intended to be the end-all piece on the art and science of the question, let’s look at a few points around questions.  We all know that people generally enjoy talking about themselves.  Let’s use this knowledge to steer the conversation.  Here are two examples:

Example One:  You meet a new contact at one of your accounts.  You introduce yourself, exchange a bit of small talk about the weather (Dawgoinit, it sure has been cold/hot/rainy/dry this week) then ask:

“How long have you been working for Acme?” 
Using this question, you can lead the conversation to where the person worked before, the customer’s career path, educational experience, their service in the armed forces and lots more.  What’s more the discussion is likely to lead you to this follow-up question:

“What are your areas of responsibility here at Acme?”
The flow of the conversation then takes you into job duties, issues with finding trained people, and reporting structure.  Along the way you can ask for clarification, points of conflict, and bottlenecks in the process.  Listen closely and you get some understanding for politics at the customer.

Example Two:  You’re calling on a customer you have known for some time and see a broken part laying in greasy heap on his credenza.  After taking care of pressing matters you ask the following question:

“I couldn’t help but notice the greasy thing on your back desk.  What’s the story here?”
The customer relates as to how and why the broken part has become a desktop decoration and provides you with information on what it is and how it was broken.

Possible follow up questions include:
“Is this something that happens often?”
“How long does it take to replace the part?”
“Does this impact other areas of operation?”
“Do you have ideas as to the root cause of the failure?”

The point to remember is this…
It’s a conversation not a light shining in the face Gestapo-style meeting.  To steal from a cheesy Humphrey Bogart movie, “Well Mr. Customer, we have ways of making you talk.”
But none of them are about running down a list of questions. 

We have much more to say about questions.  We even have a self-study program called the Art and Science of the Question.  I personally believe questions are the key to success. 
Don’t believe me, email me a question.

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