If You Think Asking a Question is Difficult Try Ignorance
Questioning? Everybody talks about it. Few do it. It is like selling. Runaway personal ambition, instead of the ambitions of your customer. Instead of thought-provoking questioning, mainstream sales people use the blunt and stifling instrument of information proliferation.
Do you want customers to listen, or to talk? Do you want them to better understand your position, or do you want them to better understand their most pressing issues? Information sellers are convinced that they must capture the hearts and minds of the customer in the first 60 seconds because that will determine if they are going to listen or not. Question-based sellers are more concerned about whether in the first 60 seconds of the sales call they can get customers interested enough and engaged enough to answer questions.
One of the most important skill sets a sales person can have is the ability to be at the right place, at the right time, with the right person, who has the right problem—and recognize it, and be at the wrong place, at the wrong time, with wrong person—and recognize it. This comes from superior question skills for most sales people, more so than pure instinct.
Selling is a feedback profession more than a convincing profession. Unless you have the gift and the instincts to sell music CDs to teenagers, your job is to be pragmatic and get feedback as to where you can be effective and successful, and where you cannot be and simply cut your losses on unsuccessful selling campaigns. The selling profession is transitioning slowly from the role of being a charismatic motivator to get customers to buy, to the role of being a shrewd adviser who helps customers navigate the pros/cons of changing, and let them motivate themselves as to whether it is in their best interest to buy or not. The question all sales people have to ask themselves is, are they better at motivating customers to buy, or are they better at understanding who is motivated to buy and why?
If you want to out sell the competition you have to "out learn" them on a sales call. Question-based sellers are unable to have a conversation without seeing countless opportunities to learn more information and ask telling questions. They are always on vigilant alert. They are lifetime learners by nature and habit. So stop telling and start asking telling questions. Good things come to those who ask...and ask and you shall receive. Just do not expect it all to be good news wrapped up perfectly for you to take across the finishing line.
Conventional sales people put all their emphasis on being qualified by the customer, instead of qualifying their customer. Their process has glaring gaps of no questions to the customer, because they believe their solution is unquestionable and unimpeachable. They fear once they start asking questions they will be lose their edge, advantage, and momentum.
Ironically, customers will tolerate information from someone they do not trust because it is so easy to dismiss them out right. However they will not tolerate questions from someone they do not trust because of the emotional investment and potential vulnerability it represents when they answer questions. This is another fear of traditional sales people. Few sales people use the litmus test of fair and accurate when asking questions. When they ask questions they feel the medium protects them from misperception and misinterpretation. With the best of intentions their questions fall short because they are leading, loaded, biased and often not trustworthy.
We all have heard the equivalent from customers to tell them something they do not already know. You need to always be trying to think of questions that your customers do not have easy answers to, do not already know the answers, would never have thought of asking themselves the question, or they are afraid of answering the question because it brings up unresolved sticky issues. To be able to accomplish this performance task you have to be in the moment. And it is not enough to be just in the moment or present, you need to stay diligently in your customer's moment.
When you ask questions, especially tough questions, it is very important to first establish your customer's general receptivity to answer them, otherwise they tend to shut down. Do not be afraid to ask what I call "easy questions." Easy questions are very easy for the customer to answer, but very difficult for the sales person to ask because it gives customers an easy out. Keeping them in charge makes it easy for them to give truthful answers.
The more you ask questions the more you realize how little you know. This is a big reason why sales people do not ask questions, because it is more comfortable to operate under the idea that they are fully informed. It takes confidence and humility to ask questions that you really do not know the answers to, and I do not mean asking simple, conventional questions of needs and requirements.
Another reason classic sales people do not ask questions is because they do not want real answers, they only want answers that will lead to favorable, foregone conclusions. When it is all about the sales person and their superior offering there are not many good reasons to ask questions, especially when you believe in the logic of rational customers. Traditional sales people like to have it their way, and this invariably leads to a push/pull back relationship. To make matters worse, since they do not have a multi-dimensional strategy, they are not razor focused on buying cues and never hear the subtleties of dissent, objections, lack of interest and changing minds. If you want to be a good questioner and really engage customers, first accept customers as they are, in the position they are in. Once this happens questions tend to flow a lot easier.
Sales people need to sharpen their intellectual curiosity in order to come up with good questions. Good questions are used to stimulate the reflective mind of customers. In order to do that you need to be introverted (questioning and listening), and you need to be extroverted and outgoing enough to find customers...it is definitely a balancing act requiring flexibility.
Einstein said, "The important thing is not to stop asking questions." When you stop questioning you are through. So think twice before you speak. In most cases you make your sales points more effectively with a question, instead of just selling and telling.
Say less to say more. Questions are the way you say more. The only consistent and predictable way of demonstrating that you intimately understand your customer's business and their issues is through questions. Knowledge obtained without direct confirmation from customers can be considered suspect and not credible. Repurpose your expertise and knowledge into direct questions, instead of declarations and selling points. In negotiating they say the first person who speaks loses. In sales, the first person who asks questions and can sustain it wins.