Questions: The Answer to Sales
The Gabby Dinosaur – Your perfect pitch – and where to pitch it.
They teed off on the fifth hole, a long Par 5, and put away their drivers. “So,” Mitch said, “as a Certified Action Selling professional, you can tell me how to ask—how’d you put it?—the right questions at the right times in the right way? That’s what Action Selling is?”
“That’s the heart of it,” Harry said amiably. “Oh, Action Selling taught me a few other things I didn’t know despite 20 years in the field. Like how to manage not just a sales call, but also the whole sales process. And how to match the selling process to the customer’s buying process. And how to really plan and orchestrate sales calls so customers see me as a consultant and business partner, instead of just a guy who pitches the same commodities they can buy from anybody else.
“I’ve changed a lot about my selling game,” Harry continued. “But if we’re talking about how to do all of it, then, yes, Action Selling keeps coming back to when and how to ask the best questions.”
“OK, I’ll bite,” Mitch said. “When and how do I ask the best questions?”
“How to match the selling process to the customer’s buying process.”
Harry paused to examine a bad lie in the rough. He took a pitching wedge and knocked his ball back onto the fairway. “It would help if I had a clear picture of what you’re doing now,” he said. “For instance, you’re not landing new accounts. You used to be very good at that. Any thoughts about what’s changed?”
“Nothing much besides what I told you. The time-crunch thing is a big part of it. But even when a prospect gives me a decent amount of time, I just don’t seem able to establish the level of credibility I used to get.”
“I just don’t seem able to establish the level of credibility I used to get.”
“Tell you what,” Harry said. “Walk me through an example of a recent call on a new account—one where you figured you had a good shot at getting the business.”
Mitch didn’t need long to think, as he laid up with a five iron. “All right, here’s one. I was calling on Cheryl Gross, the technology buyer at Currentech. She’s new in the role; they just hired her from outside. She called us in to bid on her business. Huge outfit. They buy about $2 million a year in product.
“Cheryl is one of these Type A personalities I see more and more, not interested in relationship stuff. You say that selling is all about questions now, Harry? Here’s how Cheryl started our meeting.
She said, ‘We’ve got 15 minutes, and I have three questions: What’s the lead time? What’s your price? And why should I buy from you?’”
“Harry, I gave her great answers! But it didn’t matter. She still bought from a competitor. I heard they installed an elaborate system for ordering and tracking inventory—the whole nine yards.”
“You say Cheryl is new,” Harry said. “What did she do before she went to Currentech?”
“I gave her great answers! She still bought from a competitor.”
“I don’t know. She only gave me 15 minutes.”
Harry winced. “Other than delivery and price, what needs did she have?”
“She didn’t explain any other needs. I thought that I would get more time with her in a future meeting. So I just did what she asked me to do.”
A mocking voice in Harry’s head repeated, Of course I question them about their needs! I didn’t just fall off a turnip truck!
“Our capabilities…didn’t seem to resonate.”
Sensing the direction of Harry’s thoughts, Mitch reddened. “I tried to present our capabilities—the ones I felt would be most appealing. But they didn’t seem to resonate. She actually looked at her watch twice during our meeting. I think she just brought me in to get a competitive bid that would justify a decision she already had made.”
“That’s possible,” Harry said, as if he didn’t find it especially relevant. “Tell me, if the meeting was 15 minutes long, how many minutes did you talk and how many minutes did she talk?”
“She never said much at all. After I answered her question about why she should buy from me, I asked if she thought the capabilities I’d described would be helpful. Know what she said? She said: ‘Yes. How will you price your products for us?’”
“So, how many minutes did you talk out of 15?”
Mitch waved his arms in exasperation. “Maybe 14, all right?”
“How did you answer her price question, Mitch?”
“I offered her a 30 percent discount. That left me about 8 percent in gross margin. Which doesn’t leave me with a whole lot of commission since I’m paid on gross margin.”
Harry winced again. “Who, besides Cheryl, would be involved in making the decision on which supplier to select? Who has the budget? Who manages the people who will use the products? Who evaluates the technical aspects of your solution vs. the competition’s?”
“I’m not sure if anyone else is involved,” Mitch replied. “She didn’t say.”
You mean you didn’t ask, Harry thought. “Which of your competitors did Cheryl look at?”
“She wouldn’t tell me. I heard from a supplier that she bought from Genco.”
“After you had this meeting, what communication did you have with her?” Harry asked.
“We exchanged some emails. And I emailed her a PowerPoint proposal. Did a nice job on it, too. But like I said, Harry, I think she had already decided, and the whole thing was a foregone conclusion. About two weeks later she sent me an email thanking me for the proposal and rejecting my offer.”
Harry pulled a club out of his bag and began to swing it one-handed as they walked, back and forth, clipping the top of the grass like a scythe.
“A prospect who spends $2 million a year told you she had 15 minutes to discuss how to spend it.”
“Let me see if I understand this,” he said finally. “A prospect who spends $2 million a year on equipment told you she had 15 minutes to discuss how to spend it. You accepted that at face value. Of those 15 minutes, you talked for 14. She asked three questions, you asked one. And your question was about how much she liked the talking you’d done. Am I right so far?”
You asked for his help, Mitch told himself. But I didn’t think it would be this painful. “All right, yes,” he said.
“Cheryl controlled everything about the call—the pace, what was discussed, the order in which things were discussed. Instead of asking you those three questions, she might just as easily have said, ‘In 15 minutes or less, give me your standard pitch.’ Because that’s all she got from you.”
“Well, gee, Harry, pardon me for answering a customer’s questions. What are you going to tell me that Action Selling has some manipulative gimmicks that are supposed to let me dodge them instead? You used to sneer at that junk. I don’t know who you’ve been calling on, but the customers I see today are more aware of manipulative sales tricks, not less.”
“Customers I see today are more aware of manipulative sales tricks.”
“You couldn’t be further off base, Mitch,” Harry said. “Trust me, I’m not pushing a method that assumes customers are idiots who won’t see you coming a mile away with some little bag of gimmicks. Bear with me. Right now, I’m just trying to be sure I understand what happened on this sales call.” More to the point, I want you to understand what happened, he thought.
Mitch plum-bobbed a long putt. “OK. Sorry, Harry.”
It’s tough to be told you’re not a professional, Harry thought. Believe me, I’ve been there. “As I understand it,” he said aloud, “here’s what happened in terms of outcomes: Cheryl took control of your sales call the moment she uttered her first words about how little time she had.”
It’s tough to be told you’re not a professional.
“Yes,” Mitch replied grimly.
“And all you learned about Cheryl or her company is that she is a Type A personality who assumes you’re selling interchangeable commodities and that your pitch is all she needs to learn from you. You didn’t find out where she worked or what she did before she took this job at Currentech. You didn’t find out if anyone else would be involved in the buying decision and in what capacity. You didn’t find out which suppliers you were competing against. You didn’t learn anything about the particular problems or opportunities she needed to address with this purchase—not even why she felt leadtime was important. You didn’t learn which factors in the buying decision would make this a real win to her company. You didn’t learn how she, personally, might benefit from choosing the right solution or suffer from choosing the wrong one. Am I right about all of that?”
Mitch’s defensiveness was rising again. “Yes, yes, yes, Harry, it’s all true! But weren’t you listening? She didn’t give me a chance to ask her any questions!”
“She didn’t give me a chance to ask her any questions!”
Harry seemed to consider the point. “Mitch, if you truly only had 15 minutes, did you think, in your wildest dreams, that you could land a $2 million deal with someone you didn’t even know?”
Mitch considered. “All right, but that doesn’t change the basic situation. Cheryl said she had 15 minutes and told me exactly what she wanted to know. I was just responding to my customer. What non-manipulative, non-gimmicky thing should I have done instead of answering her questions?”
“Let’s think about that,” Harry replied. “She asked you three questions: lead-time, price, and why she should buy from you. Which of those questions was most important to you—and at least should have been most important to her?”
“‘Why should I buy from you?’ of course,” Mitch said.
“And is that the one you spent the most time answering? I mean, if you talked for 14 minutes, I’ll bet you spent 12 or 13 of them on why she should buy from you.”
Mitch just nodded.
“Why buy from you? You were completely unqualified to answer that question.”
“Well, I would argue—and Action Selling would argue—that you were completely unqualified to answer that question. You knew nothing about Cheryl’s situation, or her company’s needs, or what Currentech hoped to gain from this purchase, or what’s in it for Cheryl to make the right choice for Currentech. You couldn’t connect any of the features and benefits of your products, services, or value-add offers to her real needs. Unless your company is extremely unusual, those generic features and benefits are a lot like the competition’s.
“So, Mitch, how the heck would you know why Cheryl should buy from you? A Certified Action Selling professional would tell you that neither of you even knew what she was buying or what you were selling—which makes me wonder how you could answer her questions about price or lead-time, either.”
Mitch looked at Harry thoughtfully. Then he silently walked off to take his next shot. When he caught up to Harry walking down the fairway, he said, “All right, that makes sense. For one thing, I see now that I let Cheryl take complete control of the call. I know better than that. But Harry, the issue remains: A customer tells me she has just a few minutes. She makes it plain what she wants to know and asks me a question—or three. I don’t want to answer yet. What do I do to regain control without resorting to some bag of manipulative tricks?”
Harry smiled as if there were no mystery at all. “Why not tell her the simple truth?” he asked. “Suppose you said: ‘Cheryl, at this point I’m not exactly sure why you should buy from me. But, I can tell you that, customers just like you buy from me for a lot of good reasons. So I can share the most relevant information, would you mind if I asked you a couple of questions?’”
Mitch looked around at the lush green golf course and the lovely blue sky. He tried to calculate the number of calls he had made in the past 18 months without landing a single account. He thought about how many had followed the same pattern as his call on Currentech. He thought about his desperate efforts to regain his past glory, all of them focused in one way or another on improving his talking skills. And he remembered the Harry he used to know. Boy, are you singing a different tune.
“Now let me guess,” Mitch said. “If I spend the whole 15 minutes asking questions and never get to do any selling, she might discover she has more time if she gets to talk.”
“That’s certainly possible—either that, or she’d be more willing to make more time for you later. Except I’d also tell you that when you’re asking questions, Mitch, you are selling. In fact, I’d tell you that almost all of the important ‘selling’ you do takes place while you’re asking questions. I don’t think there’s any such thing as, ‘I only asked questions and didn’t get to do any selling.’ On the other hand, I think these past few years you’ve been seeing the results you get from thinking, ‘I have no time to ask questions because I’m too busy ‘selling.’”
Mitch thought it over. “So, according to the new Harry, the Action Selling Certified Harry, it’s not what you say, and it’s not how you say it. It’s what you ask?”
“When you’re asking questions, you are selling.”
“Let’s put it this way,” Harry said. “Might your call on Cheryl have been more successful if it was aimed at solving her personal needs and not just at your idea of a typical customer?”
“That makes sense,” Mitch said.
“Well, in that case, my answer to your question is yes: It isn’t what you say or how you say it. It’s what you ask.”
“It isn’t what you say or how you say it. It’s what you ask.”
Mitch seemed lost in thought, taking his time with another putt. “I think maybe you’d better tell me more about Action Selling,” he finally said.
“I think so too,” Harry said. “But not here. I want to show you a kind of road map, a diagram that helps explain it. Plus, that foursome behind is getting impatient. What do you say we just try to finish this game without scoring in triple digits? Then you come to my office next week. Think you could find the time?” Gabbing through sales calls is a hard habit to break, Mitch, he thought. But if I could do it, maybe you can too.
“Oh, yeah,” said Mitch, seeing a glimmer of hope at the end of a long, bleak tunnel. “Yeah, Harry, I can find the time.”