Questions: The Answer to Sales
Earn the Right to Ask – Yeah, but how do you do it?
I still say you owe me five bucks,” Harry deadpanned as they walked back into his office and saw the golf course spread below.
Mitch strangled a laugh, producing a small snort. He recovered himself and matched Harry’s serious tone. “For the last time, it wasn’t a real bet, Harry, it was an expression. ‘Five bucks says the guy corkscrews himself right into the ground’ is an expression.”
While eating lunch on the terrace of the Bear Creek Country Club, they had watched a player with a truly unfortunate swing pull his drive off the first tee deep into the parking lot of Harry’s office building, then take a mulligan and do the same thing again.
“That swing looked like it actually hurt,” Harry said. “ I hope you parked your car on the far end of the lot. I always do.”
“Oh, I get it. My car is being pelted with golf balls and you want me to cough up five bucks,” Mitch replied.
“Well, I can see you’re never going to pay up, despite the way I’m saving your sorry career. Shall we get back to Action Selling?”
“Please,” Mitch said, as they settled into their chairs. “I do appreciate this you know, Harry.”
Harry smiled and waved away the gratitude. It’s more fun to bust your chops, he thought.
“‘The Best’ open-ended questions uncover ‘The Best’ customer needs.”
“All right,” Mitch said, “you told me the ‘why’ of asking all these questions, and the Best Questions Map tells me ‘what’ I need to find out. Now we’re up to ‘how.’ If I’m following you, Action Selling can tell me how to ask ‘The Best’ open-ended questions in a way that uncovers ‘The Best’ customer needs.” Mitch used his fingers to put quote marks around ‘The Best’ each time he said the words. “After I have agreed on those needs with the customer, I can customize a presentation that lets me differentiate by selling directly to ‘The Best’ needs instead of delivering my standard pitch. Correct?”
“Yep,” Harry said.
“Okay, on Thursday I have a call scheduled at Bridgeco. It’s potentially a big account. The client’s name is Jim Bradley. I’ve never met him, just talked to him on the phone to get the appointment. So here’s an open-ended question: How do I go about questioning Bradley?”
“Good idea, let’s use him as an example,” Harry said. “You want to uncover needs that your products are well qualified to solve, right? If you’re going to prepare some questions that would get Jim Bradley to think about needs like those, where do you suppose you’d start?”
Mitch thought for a moment. “With my products, I guess. My product features?”
“Very good. The needs you’re looking for are ones that correspond to the strengths of your products, your services, or your company. So you’d start by identifying unique or differentiating features. What do you or your products do better than your competition does?”
Another pause from Mitch. “That ought to be an easy question,” he finally said. “But actually, our products aren’t that different from others on the market. We try to differentiate more around service and ancillary stuff.”
“That’s the usual situation these days,” Harry said. “Almost all products have become commodities. And truth be told, I’ll bet your service and your guarantees and your value-add offers aren’t exactly unique either.”
Mitch wiggled his hand in a “not exactly” gesture.
“It isn’t what you sell but how you sell that counts.”
“Uh-huh,” Harry said. “Which just proves the point that it isn’t what you sell but how you sell that counts. All right, forget ‘unique.’ But what are you especially good at? What are your three strongest capabilities—the ones that usually appeal most to your customers?”
With some prodding from Harry, Mitch settled on these three capabilities as the biggest differentiating factors he had to work with:
“Let me see if I understand,” Harry said when they were through. “First, thanks to your integrated online system, customers can access your entire supply chain to order parts, components and programs. That’s what ‘best acquisition system’ means. Second, your tech-support people are available 24/7 online, and your field technicians can be reached during working hours via cell phones. Third, your customer-education and certification programs are among the most respected in the industry, with the best courses and instructors. Those are the things you’d describe as your strongest differentiators?”
Mitch agreed with Harry’s summary.
“So in the best of all possible worlds,” Harry asked, “you would learn that Jim Bradley has some critical needs that could be addressed by one or more of those features? Or maybe you and Jim could discover those needs together?”
“I get it,” Mitch said, perking up. “The Best Questions I could ask Jim are open-ended questions that probe for needs corresponding to my strongest features.”
“The Best Questions probe for needs of my strongest features.”
“More precisely, you want to probe for needs that correspond to the benefits of those features. Because Jim doesn’t need product features, of course, he needs the benefits they provide—the things those features can do to help him achieve goals he cares about.”
Mitch nodded to show that he was familiar with the distinction between features and benefits. Harry wrote the following on a fresh sheet of paper:
“You’ve just completed the first step of a questioning process that Action Selling calls Back-Tracking Benefits,” Harry told him. “To Ask the Best Questions that uncover needs your products or services could help solve, you work backwards from the thing you’re selling. First you identify your selling strengths. Then you identify the common benefits of those strengths—what makes them appealing to most customers? Before calling on a customer, you prepare some questions designed to reveal needs for those benefits. During the call you listen carefully for clues that allow you to probe deeper and ask more specific questions about how a product benefit would help this particular customer.”
“I get it,” Mitch said again, taking notes.
Do you? Harry thought. I don’t think so. “Remember,” he said, “you just told me that the strengths you’ve identified aren’t exactly unique. If you’re like most salespeople, your competitors can offer similar features and benefits. What you need to understand, Mitch, is that almost nobody today has a genuinely unique product to sell. The winner is the salesperson who is most skillful at executing a process. That process involves asking questions that raise the customer’s awareness of particular kinds of needs—and how those needs could be satisfied by working together with the salesperson. If this isn’t the whole ballgame, it’s certainly the first eight innings.”
“The winner is the salesperson who is most skillful at executing a process.”
Mitch looked him in the eye. “Okay, Harry. I won’t say, ‘I get it.’ But I’m starting to get it.” He held the gaze until Harry nodded his acceptance. “Now, how do I go about it? I mean, I can’t just walk into Jim Bradley’s office, ask a few general Act 2 questions about his background to build rapport, and then say, ‘Jim, I have 99 more questions. Here’s Number 1.”
Harry just smiled and grabbed another sheet of paper. He drew a diagram that looked like this:
When he finished drawing, Harry said: “Think of questions as investments you make during a sales call, Mitch. If you don’t invest wisely, you won’t get a return. A few well-planned questions can produce an enormous payoff on your investment. But there’s an art to it—a process. Action Selling uses this Questions Funnel to illustrate how it works.”
He let Mitch examine the drawing, then continued. “You’re absolutely right about ‘Here are 99 questions I want to ask.’ The customer would throw you out of his office. The same thing would happen if the first question out of your mouth were what Action Selling calls a Leverage Question. A Leverage Question is one that turns up the emotional heat under a need you’ve identified. It’s the most important question you’ll ask—the investment with the biggest payoff—but it isn’t the first one you’ll ask with regard to any individual need.
“The funnel shows you how to structure your questions about needs related to each product benefit you want to explore,” Harry went on. “First you ask a broad question about a need related to the benefit. Then ask a couple of questions to clarify and specify the need. Then you ask a Leverage Question to raise the customer’s awareness of how important the need really is.
“The funnel shows how to structure questions about needs for each product benefit.”
“A Leverage Question urges the customer to recognize—on a personal, emotional level—the full danger or opportunity hiding in this need. What’s really in it for Bridgeco if Jim Bradley solves the problem or grasps the opportunity he’s talking to you about? Better still, what’s in it for Jim personally? What pain will he suffer if he fails to solve the problem? What reward might he get if he does solve it? A good Leverage Question leads the customer to think, ‘Holy cow, I’ve got to do something about this!’
“But you have to set the stage for a Leverage Question,” Harry concluded. “You need to earn the right to ask one. It’s like I told you before: Each good question you ask earns you the right to ask the next question. Each good question helps you ‘sell yourself’ and build a relationship in which you become a trusted consultant and partner, working with the customer toward a solution. I said that questions are investments. What you’re investing in is that relationship! If you can build it, your competitors will have a very tough
time trying to breach it.”
“You need to earn the right to ask a Leverage Question.”
Mitch sat still, gazing at some point in space outside Harry’s office window. Finally he said, “That’s what you mean about the customer’s first major buying decision being the most important one, isn’t it? Whether to ‘buy’ the salesperson. It really is enormous.”
“Now you’re starting to get it,” Harry said softly. You’ve finally stepped onto the path to enlightenment, he thought.
Mitch was quiet for another minute. Then he said, “Okay, how do I do this with Jim Bradley?”
“Start by preparing a few questions for each of the three strengths you’ve identified,” Harry replied. “You may have to improvise based on what you hear from Jim—that’s where effective listening comes in. But start with a plan. What do you say we work through an example with one of your three features? Pick one.”
“How about ‘easiest access to technical support’?”
“All right.” Harry drew another Questions Funnel on his pad, with no labels. “You want to start with a broad question that will get Jim thinking and talking about his needs for easy access to technical support. For instance, what problems does he have with tech support for his current system?”
“I’ll bet I can guess,” Mitch said eagerly. “I know what system he’s using.”
“That’s good. Your experience will help. But you’re there to ask and listen, not to guess. No, don’t look glum,” Harry laughed, noting Mitch’s expression. “Here’s where educated guessing does come in. Action Selling recommends that you ‘preface’ a broad needs question with something from your own experience that prompts the customer and also shows that you know something about the issue.
“Preface a broad needs question with something from your own experience.”
“For instance, instead of asking, “Jim, what problems do you run into with tech support?” you might say something like this: “Jim, many prospective customers tell me their biggest headache with technical support is that they can’t reach a service rep when they need one. Others feel they simply shouldn’t need to call for tech help as often as they do. When your people need technical support for your current system, what do they do?”
Mitch jotted notes furiously. “Yeah, that makes sense,” he said. “By framing the question that way, I ‘sell myself’ as someone familiar with the kinds of issues that arise in companies around tech support. Jim is more willing to talk to me about his problems because he figures maybe I have some expertise that could help him. I earn the right to ask the question while I’m asking it.”
“Bravo,” Harry said. “Do you want to pick a broad needs question for Bradley?”
“I like the one you just gave me,” Mitch said. “I’ll preface it the way you suggested, then ask him, ‘What do your people currently do when they need technical support?’”
“Fine,” Harry said, making a note on his drawing of the Questions Funnel. “Next you’ll ask one or more specific questions, based on his answer to the broad one. If he describes a more or less general problem with tech support, you want to know exactly what that problem looks like to Jim—in his situation, in his company—and the effects it has on his operation. But it’s more than just you wanting to know. You also want him to think through his own need and its implications. He may never have taken the time to do that. Your questions should help him.”
“It’s more than you wanting to know. You want him to think through his own need.”
With some coaching from Harry, Mitch settled on two questions to encourage Jim Bradley to paint a more specific picture of his needs: “Can you tell me about the last time your people had trouble getting a question answered by tech support?” And, as a follow-up: “How did that affect their ability to service your customers?”
Harry made more notes on his Questions Funnel. Then he said, “That last question, about the impact on Bridgeco or Jim’s department, may turn out to be a Leverage Question on its own. If the effect of second-rate tech support on Jim’s operation is so dramatic that the personal consequences to him are glaringly obvious, then it is a Leverage Question. But to raise the emotional heat under his need for better tech support, there’s still one more question we could ask him.”
Mitch grinned like a student one step ahead of the teacher. “When customers aren’t getting the service that they expect, how does that impact you, Jim?” he said.
Harry responded by turning around his drawing of the Questions Funnel. He had already written that very question at the bottom. His picture looked like this:
“Go through that same process to plan questions that relate to needs for your other two strongest features,” Harry said. “Plan some early Act 2 questions as well, based on what you know about Bridgeco and Jim Bradley’s background. Above all, listen to what he tells you and react accordingly. You need to plan, but don’t hesitate to ditch your plan if the customer leads you in a different direction. Maybe his major problem with his current system doesn’t correspond to the three features you picked. Fine. Probe it with the same kinds of questions. How is your product or service able to solve the problems he cares about the most? Never mind the features you’re so proud of. When you present a solution to Jim later, you’ll have to tell him how you’ll solve his problem. Let him tell you what it is. Ask him to describe it. Ask him what effects it has on Bridgco and on him personally. For crying out loud, shut up and listen to the man!”
“Shut up and listen!”
Mitch scribbled a final note, then leaned back in his chair. “You haven’t told me everything there is to Action Selling, have you, Harry?”
“Not even close. But if you use what I’ve told you, you’re going to have a very different kind of selling experience with Jim Bradley. And then you’re going to want to get certified as an Action Selling professional.”
Mitch rose and shook Harry’s hand. “I have a feeling you’re right,” he said. “Thanks, Harry. Really. Thanks.”
“You owe me five bucks,” Harry said. “That guy hit it sideways but he did not corkscrew himself into the ground.”
ABOUT DUANE SPARKS
Duane Sparks is founder and chairman of The Sales Board, the authoritative source of practical and leading-edge information about the art and science of selling. He has created Action Selling sales training products and learning systems that transform sales organizations. Duane is author of these best-selling books: Action Selling, Selling Your Price, Questions (the Answer to Sales), Masters of Loyalty (How to turn your sales force into a loyalty force), and Sales Strategy from the Inside Out (How complex selling really works).
Discover how the best sales training process can make spectacular improvements in sales skills. Action Selling: How to Sell Like a Professional (Even If You Think You are One).