Question or Perish
We communicate and clarify the essence of our solutions through thought provoking questions. It has been said that the only sustainable and competitive advantage that sales people possess is their ability to learn faster than their competition. In the competitive environment of selling, questioning is your most important weapon of distinction and most effective tool for learning.
The questioning strategy is based on the premise that two heads are better than one. The collective intelligence of yourself and your customer will outperform the traditional power of persuasion, hype and bluster that most mainstream sales people rely on. Good questioning allows you to leverage your time, effort, energy and resources on the prospects that represent the greatest potential. Remember, all prospects are not created equal.
I saw a billboard in my neighborhood that caught my eye; If you are not a Bears fan you are a tourist. So I wondered what the equivalent would be in the sales profession. Here it is; If you are not always asking thought-provoking, insightful questions, and being a customer advocate, you are simply an empty suit, a professional visitor, a talking brochure, a goodwill ambassador, a professional vending machine and a potential endangered species.
"The most productive sentence in any salesperson's vocabulary always ends with a question mark," says Bill Brooks. Unfortunately, too many mainstream sales people's information exchanges end in an enthusiastic, exclamation mark! The more enthusiastic, excited and passionate you are in a sales call, the less you will ask questions and intently listen for the subtlety in the hidden gems your customers keep below the surface.
Sales people by nature are external optimists and are predisposed to project a constant, superficial, sunny disposition. They have imaginations that often defy reality. So good questioning skills are critical to keep sales people focused on reality and not let their optimism and highly charged emotions get the best of them. Good questions insulate and protect sales people from the disastrous temptation and urge to lock and load, pray and spray and show up and throw up. Common sense selling is all about asking questions that are unbiased, practical and outcome neutral.
Curiosity might have killed the cat, but in sales the lack of curiosity kills sales careers. You have the "questions not the answers," should always be your selling posture. The sales person with the best questions will consistently outsell the sales person with the best answers.
Traditional sales people ask questions to reinforce their point of view, or to press their selling agenda. Is it no wonder customers resist by not answering, or by not sharing the truth. Questions lose credibility when they are perceived as too opportunistic and self-centered. Sales people who ask expected questions get expected answers. Once you start asking unexpected and unpredictable questions, is when you can start getting fresh, unpredictable, insightful, interesting and unexpected answers.
You have got to be open and vulnerable to explore the hidden side of your customer's problems, motivation and commitment to change. Most traditional sales people do not want to ask questions that will give them unpredictable answers, because they love to dictate and control the flow of the sales call. That is a tactical mistake that will leave one with less trust, less direction and less opportunity to get to the reality of the customer's truth.
Because sales people do not ask a lot of relevant and meaningful business questions that are not self-serving, they are perceived by customers as giving repetitive generic solutions to standard run-of-the-mill problems. Customers do not want to be treated as if they have standard problems, even if that is what they have. So they return the favor and treat sales people as a commodity, who brings questionable value to the table.
To avoid this realistic messy scenario, come to a sales engagement with an empty mind (beginner's mind) and with only questions at your disposal. When you approach your customer with no fixed agenda, you may be pleasantly surprised how clear things become. So ask questions as if you have nothing to lose. This very "matter of fact" posture promotes interactive, open and meaningful transparency where customers tend to be more open to share information as if they had also nothing to lose. When you are the voice of reason and you drop habitual traditional lines of question that are loaded, leading, self-serving and annoying, you transition from being a vendor, to an advisor and business consultant. "Shared mutual learning is critical to be a consultant," says Mack Hanan.
Sales is a pick your customer's brain, think out loud, brainstorming activity, where you are allowed to freely explore all options and alternatives, pro and con, without concern as to how it impacts your ability to make a sale. This requires a lot of mutual trust, understanding and emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence and self-awareness is important to ask questions that are outcome neutral.
"Ask questions so both parties can make intelligent and informed decisions as to whether it makes sense to invest time and resources on the deal. Most questions posed by sales people are designed just to get what they want and need," says Randy Shapario. Mainstream sales people ask information based questions at the exclusion of asking reality-based questions. Information questions are more of what you are looking for. Reality-based questions are centered around why would your customer consider changing. Sales people need to ask high payoff questions for their customers. Yet, many customers perceive questions only to be high payoff for the sales person and they respond in kind with low payoff answers.