Questions: The Answer to Sales

Meanwhile, Back In the Customer’s Head – ‘I think this guy can actually help me.’

If Bridgeco intends to grow from $500 million to $1 billion in revenue, I’m sure you’ll need to make changes in the way you acquire the products you sell. What concerns do you have about your ability to handle the increased volume?” Mitch asked Jim Bradley.

“We’ll have to find efficiencies within our supply chain,” Bradley replied. “We certainly don’t want to grow without a corresponding reduction in our cost of doing business.”

I can’t believe I’m having this level of conversation with a salesperson, Bradley thought, not for the first time. I actually think this guy might be able to help us with some real problems. The 20 minutes he originally allowed for Mitch’s call already had stretched to 40, and Bradley was not at all impatient to end the visit. Quite the opposite.

From the start, this had been anything but a typical sales call. If he’s got a product pitch, I haven’t heard it, Bradley thought. He knew he had revealed far more information about Bridgeco—its workings and its plans—than he ordinarily would regard as any of a salesperson’s business. Or anything a salesperson would care about, his mind added. He tried again to put his finger on what it was about Mitch that made him want to open up. The closest he could come was this: He doesn’t act as if I obviously need what he’s selling. He genuinely seems to want to know whether he can help us, and if so, how.

“Mitch genuinely seems to want to know if he can help us.”

Before Mitch walked into Jim Bradley’s office, he had done enough research to know that Bridgeco was a $500 million company with about 700 salespeople in 60 branches. It had been easy to learn that Bradley was one of Bridgeco’s five majority shareholders and served as vice president of marketing. Mitch also was aware of speculation in the business press that Bridgeco was planning a public stock offer soon. Bradley appreciated the fact that Mitch had prepared for the visit, but there was nothing especially unusual about a salesperson doing a little bit of homework before a call.

No, what was unusual was Mitch’s desire to understand how Bridgeco operated, what it wanted to achieve, the obstacles it faced, and the problems that might be important to Bradley himself. Bradley had expected a few minutes of chit-chat followed by a product presentation. Faced instead with a listener whose questions showed a sincere interest in him and in his company, he began talking. And I haven’t shut up since, he thought with some surprise. What’s more, I don’t want to shut up. I don’t know if this guy has a solution for me, but he’s helping me think through some issues I haven’t really considered.

“Mitch’s desire to understand how we operated was unusual.”

Earlier in the call, Bradley had confirmed that Bridgeco indeed wanted to go public. He acknowledged that each of the five owners had a huge stake in the public offering. The success of that offering hinged on Bridgeco’s ability to show progressive growth in line with an ambitious plan to double its revenue to $1 billion within five years. This growth would come from expansion into global markets. In the course of explaining Bridgeco’s workings, Bradley also had turned over some cards he ordinarily would have held closer to his vest when dealing with an unfamiliar salesperson—such as the fact that major buying decisions required the approval of all five stakeholders.

Bradley turned over some cards he ordinarily would have held closer to his vest.

As for Mitch, he had suspected as much, and firmed up his Commitment Objective for the call accordingly: I want Jim to agree to let me present a proposal to all of the owners.

Mitch’s mind was operating on two levels. On one level there was surprise and delight at how well things were going and a keen awareness that this was unlike any sales call he had ever made. But those feelings were overshadowed by his engagement with what Bradley was telling him. The inside look he was getting into Bridgeco’s operations was actually fascinating. As the call progressed, Mitch found that asking open-ended questions had become easy and natural for the simple reason that he really did want to understand the issues Bradley faced, and he really had begun to think in terms of solutions he might offer, not just products he might sell. I came in wanting to act like a consultant. Now I’m thinking like one, he realized. I wonder how many other clients I would find this interesting if I just let them tell me what their worlds look like. I wonder how much I’d learn about all kinds of things. I wonder how much more I’d enjoy my job.

“I came in wanting to act like a consultant. Now I’m thinking like one.”

Fortunately, it was Bradley, not Mitch, who got caught woolgathering. “I’m sorry,” he said. “What did you ask?”

“We were talking about the need to find efficiencies within your supply chain,” Mitch reminded him. “All of my customers want to improve their product-acquisition processes. For some of my customers, the key issue is product cost. Others are most concerned with accuracy, speed and fill rates. I asked what it is about your current procurement methods that will have to improve in order to handle the increase in volume you’ll experience as Bridgeco grows.”

“What won’t have to improve?” Bradley laughed. “Speed, accuracy, fill rates—everything involved in our acquisition process will need to be overhauled.” There you go again, he thought. That’s just what our management team has been wrestling with.

That’s just what our management team has been wrestling with.

“If you don’t find a good way to handle the overhaul, what will the consequences be?”

Bradley thought that one over for several seconds. “In a word, the consequences would be unacceptable,” he said. “Why grow at all if we can’t make money doing it?”

“Who is ultimately responsible for finding a solution to the problem?”

“Well, all five of us on the management team will have to put our heads together.”

Mitch put a mental checkmark next to his Commitment Objective. Yes, I want a meeting with the whole management team. But not before I’ve gathered more ammunition.

“What do you recommend we do?” Bradley asked.

Whoa, Jim, you’re jumping to Act 6, Mitch thought, Harry’s Action Selling ® terminology coming to mind with surprising ease. I’m not ready to sell my product yet, and you’re not ready to make a buying decision about it. We’re in Act 3 now, and you’re still deciding whether to buy me. “I have some ideas,” he answered aloud. “But I’d like to get a clearer picture of the needs a good solution would have to address. Is that okay?”

I wish more salespeople behaved the way you do.

“Sure,” Bradley said. “But let me ask you a question. How do you track your order fulfillment rates?” You’re all over our issues, Mitch, he thought, and I like your game, and I wish more salespeople behaved the way you do. But it’s time I found out if you’ve actually got something we can use.

Mitch sensed that the question wasn’t a casual one. He remembered how stupid he’d felt when Harry pointed out the folly of his thoughtless answer to Cheryl Gross’s question about lead-time. There’s some kind of drop-dead issue here, isn’t there, Jim? he thought. You’re qualifying me. Careful.

So, without knowing it, Mitch did exactly what Action Selling ® would have told him to do. He answered Bradley’s question with a question: “Tracking performance in our distribution center is a very high priority for my company,” he said. “What kind of information do you want to receive?”

“Well, it’s not just a matter of your distribution center,” Bradley replied. “If our purchasing process is really going to get streamlined, we need access not just to our direct suppliers but to their suppliers. Too many problems come up when our people have trouble tracking an order that’s stalled somewhere in a vendor’s supply chain.”

Jim, I could kiss you, Mitch thought. You just helped me ‘Backtrack a Benefit’ of one of my strongest features. Resisting the powerful urge to tell Bradley then and there that his company was the best in the industry at ensuring client access to its entire supply chain, Mitch asked: “Tell me about a recent situation when lack of access caused a problem.”

Leverage Question: “What are the consequences if problems like that aren’t solved?”

Bradley did. Since Mitch knew he had a great solution to this problem he decided to turn up the heat on the need. So he posed his leverage question: “What are the consequences to you and the other owners if problems like that aren’t solved before your purchasing volume expands dramatically?”

Even before Bradley responded, Mitch could see the realization written in the man’s face and knew exactly what Jim was thinking: Our big pay day, the public placement, won’t be what we want it to be. Holy cow, I’ve got to do something about this!

On they went, Mitch doing the asking, Bradley doing the talking. The call had lasted more than an hour before Bradley glanced at his watch. Time to wrap this up, Mitch thought. I think I have plenty of ammo.

“Jim, let me see if I can summarize the major issues that you need a solution to address.” Consulting the notes he had taken, Mitch said, “First, since you’ll be expanding into international markets as part of your push for revenue growth, you need a supplier with top-notch experience in dealing with the transition into global markets.” Like my company, he added to himself.

“Let me summarize the major issues: Transition into global markets, streamline procurement process and 24/7 technical support.”

Bradley nodded.

“Second,” Mitch continued, “your procurement process has to get streamlined to be faster, more economical, and more responsive. A key to that will be that your people should have easy access to information not just from your direct supplier but also from the whole supply chain.

“Third, while you’re satisfied with your current supplier’s technical support, you’ll need access to technical support 24/7 so that issues arising from your global expansion can be dealt with before they create problems for your customers.” Thank God my questions here in Act 3 uncovered how happy you are with the tech support you get from your current supplier, Mitch thought. If this had come up as an objection later in the sales process, it would have bitten me right on the behind. Now that I know about it, I can not only defuse the potential objection but also use it to my advantage during my custom presentation.

Bradley was already nodding again when Mitch asked, “Do I have all that right?”

“Yes, that’s a good summary.” You weren’t just pretending to pay attention while I did all the talking, were you, he thought.

Mitch smiled. “We can help you, Jim. In fact, as you grow to a billion-dollar company, we’ll be a perfect match for Bridgeco. Here’s what I’d like to suggest as a next step. If you would arrange the meeting, I’ll come back and present a proposal to you and the others on your management team. I’ll explain exactly how my company would address the needs you’ve described, and I’ll answer any questions that you or the others have. How does that sound?”

Well, I’d like to know what your outfit could do for us, and I think the rest of the team would too, Bradley thought. Besides, I wouldn’t mind having you as my primary contact for a supplier. “That sounds good, Mitch,” he said. “How about next Wednesday at 2 o’clock? The management team has a regular meeting at one, and I think I can persuade everyone to extend it to hear your proposal.”

“That would work for me,” Mitch thought. I’ll make it work, he thought.

“Fine. I’ll confirm our meeting by email, but barring something drastic that comes up, we’ll see you next Wednesday. And I’ll look forward to it,” Bradley said, rising to shake hands.

“Me too, Jim. We’ll make good use of our time together.” In fact, I’ll bet I can give your team the most on-target proposal they’ve ever heard.