Questions: The Answer to Sales

The “New” Art of Selling – Mapping out a masterpiece

Harry picked up the laminated card. He looked at one side, then the other, as if searching for something he hadn’t seen before. Then he spoke.

“Mitch, I’m wondering how to explain the significance of what I’m holding in my hand. If we just dig straight into the details, you could miss the enormity of these ideas and what they mean to the future of our profession.”

Mitch examined his long-time mentor, wondering if he had slipped off the deep end. But no, Harry seemed serious and sober.

“What I’ve got in my hand is like a thousand great ideas all rolled into one system,” Harry said. “But you can’t really see that until you completely understand the Action Selling ® process. Alot of my coworkers have taken an idea or two from Action Selling ® and improved their game. But some of us have grasped the whole picture. When that happens, it’s like being enlightened.

The enlightened learn from Action Selling ® every day.

“The enlightened learn from Action Selling ® every day. It’s as if the process gives us this magical framework or operating system from which we solve selling problems and grow our skills. Parts of the system, like the way it’s structured around the five buying decisions, are based on research or ‘science.’ But we think of the questioning portion of Action Selling ® as the ‘artful’ part of selling today. We create or design questions and use them to make masterful sales calls. The benefits we’ve experienced are enormous.”

Harry pulled another page out of his planner and began to jot some notes.

Harry then started to talk Mitch through the notes he had made.

“Most salespeople think their biggest problem is closing sales,” he said. “In fact, the reason they can’t close is because they never opened the sale properly. Asking questions is how you do that.”

“The reason they can’t close is because they never opened.”

He tapped the next point on his list. “Questioning the client is how you ‘sell yourself.’ It shows that you’re interested in the customer’s problems, you want to understand them thoroughly, and you’re thinking about how you can help. In a word, you’re acting like a real consultant.”

Tap. “No matter what your product is, until you ask the right questions you don’t know either what you’re selling or how to sell it. If you think you do, you’re peddling a commodity, pure and simple.”

Tap. “Asking questions is the only way to differentiate yourself, your products, and your company. You can’t talk your way out of the commodity trap. You can only ask your way out.”

Tap. “Questions tell you where the customer’s hot buttons are, on both logical and emotional levels. Those are the buttons your presentation has to push.”

Tap. “Questions are how you qualify customers and quit wasting your time trying to sell to the wrong people.”

Tap. “Questions balance the communication process by allowing you to have a two-way conversation with the customer instead of a situation where they just listen to as much of your monologue as they’re willing to stand.”

Tap. “Finally, what gives you the right to ask all these questions? After all, you’re just a salesperson. The answer is that you don’t have the right, you earn the right. Every time you ask a good question—one that shows you to be a thoughtful consultant who wants to understand and help improve the client’s business—you earn the right to ask another question. And then another. And then another.”

“You earn the right every time you ask a good question.”

Harry laid down his pen and picked up the laminated card again. “Mitch, the salesperson who does all of that best, wins. This is called the ‘Best Questions Map’ because it lets you be the best—by helping you ask the best questions.”

He paused to let that sink in. “Now, the Best Questions are openended. You know what those are?”

“They can’t be answered with a yes or no. Yeah I know that,” Mitch responded.

“Research shows that open-ended questions are critical to success in and of themselves—I mean, even disregarding the quality or cleverness or value of the actual questions. Calls with more open-ended questions than close-ended ones are 25 percent more successful. What do you make of that?”

“Calls with more open-ended questions are 25 percent more successful.”

“I didn’t know that. But I know we need to use them to get the customer talking— so we can be better at listening,” Mitch said.

So you understand the concept of open-ended questions, you just don’t put it into practice during sales calls, when it actually matters, Harry thought. Instead, you talk for 14 minutes out of 15. Rather than jump Mitch about it now, he decided to wait.

Harry placed the laminated card on the table, leaned forward and tapped his finger on The Best Questions Map. “What do you make of this, Mitch?” he asked. “What does it seem to be telling you?”

Mitch studied the map. “It’s an outline of different things I want to know about the customer and his company—or her company,” he said, still thinking of Cheryl Gross. “And let me guess: The arrows pointing to the ‘Differentiate’ box at the bottom mean that the point of gathering the information in the top columns is to let me differentiate myself as a consultant rather than just another salesperson. It also lets
me differentiate my company and products in, let’s see…” (he consulted his notes) “…Acts 5 and 6, because I can present them as solutions to the specific needs the customer and I agreed upon in Act 4.”

Harry was pleased. “Nothing wrong with your listening skills, Mitch,” he said.

“Except that I’m beginning to see I haven’t used them nearly enough because I’ve been too busy gabbing,” Mitch replied. He pointedly closed his mouth and looked at Harry expectantly, inviting him to go on speaking.

Harry smiled at Mitch’s expression. “Okay, look at the middle column on the map, the one labeled ‘Rapport and Interest.’ Think of those categories as things you’ll ask about in Act 2, as a sales call begins, in order to build rapport with the customer. Suppose you could start over with Cheryl Gross. Well, who is she as a person? What can you learn about her? You already know Currentech hired her from somewhere else, so where did she work before? What did she do there? And what, exactly, does she do in her present job at Currentech?

“Everybody’s favorite subject is themselves,” Harry said. “Most people will tell you about themselves if you just ask questions that encourage them to talk—and show that you’re interested in what they say.”

“Or pretend you’re interested,” Mitch said, grinning.

“People will tell you about themselves if you ask questions and show that you’re interested.”

Harry just gave him a look and continued. “The more Cheryl talks about herself, the better you get to know her as an individual and not just as a ‘Type A personality.’ But you’re there for a business purpose, so naturally you want to know about her company, as well. You’ll have done some homework before the call, so you’ll know something about Currentech and what it does—right?”

“Sure,” Mitch assured him. “I mean, yes, I did some research on Currentech before I called on Cheryl.”

“Okay,” Harry said, “but you still want to get the picture from Cheryl’s perspective. What challenges does Currentech face in its market? What’s changing in its market? What are its competitive strengths and weaknesses? The answers to questions like those will give you information that you can use to describe the benefits of your product in terms that are most meaningful to your customer. Of course, you’ll do this much later in the call.

Mitch recoiled, struck by a thought. “When I hear something that’s connected to a benefit of my product, I go straight into my pitch.”

“Ask, listen, be patient, and follow the process.”

“That’s a classic selling error,” Harry said. “Even if Cheryl essentially tells you to give her your pitch and leave, you’re being presumptuous—as if you understand her business without asking anything about it. What’s worse, if she gives you 15 minutes and you talk for 14, all you can do is describe a commodity that she can buy from someone else.”

Angry at himself, Mitch jotted a note: Ask, listen, be patient, and follow the process.

Then he looked up and said, “Okay, Harry. What are the other columns on the Questions Map for?”

“Those columns move you from Act 2 to Act 3,” Harry explained. “It isn’t as if everything stops and then a curtain rises on Act 3; there’s no big, dramatic pause. But now you turn the conversation naturally toward the specific issues driving the buying decision you’re there to discuss. You need all the information you can get about two basic things: what you’re going to sell, and how you’re going to sell it. That’s what the other two columns on the Questions Map are about.”

“Harry, this could take a while,” Mitch protested. “If she gives me 15 minutes, I couldn’t possibly get all of this done, much less answer her questions.”

Now Harry recoiled. He either doesn’t get it or he isn’t buying into Action Selling ®. “Look, Mitch,” he said, “you’ve got to stop thinking that selling is telling. It’s not. Selling is asking. Remember that the customer first must be sold on you. If you’re talking up a storm about your product, the customer is forced to evaluate you based on information about your product. You’re completely out of sync with the customer’s buying decisions. You’re doomed, and you’ll lose if you don’t change how you’re thinking about this.”

“You’ve got to stop thinking that selling is telling. It’s not.”

“Hey, Harry, old habits die hard,” Mitch said, trying to lighten the conversation. “I slipped back in time again. I’ve got more than a few changes to make, and I’m having trouble keeping all of this in front of me. I’m here to learn what I need to do to get my game back on track.”

Rather than add to his point, Harry reached forward again and tapped the column labeled “Your Position.” He explained that the questions in that column help the salesperson understand how the customer’s buying process works, what other parties will be involved in the buying decision, which competing vendors the customer is considering, and so on.

“In other words,” Harry said, “the questions in the ‘Your Position’ column uncover information about how to sell to this particular customer. How is this sales process going to evolve?”

For instance, Harry explained, the salesperson wants to know: Who is the customer’s current supplier? What does she like and dislike about the service she’s getting from that supplier? And what is the time frame for getting the product? That helps determine if the decision needs to be made tomorrow or six months from now.

“You also need to know if other players will be involved in the buying decision,” Harry said. “Who besides Cheryl must be sold? Who has the budget authority to buy? And who else will be consulted about the decision: The employees who actually use the product? Their managers? Some technical specialists?

“Those are all questions that let you know how to sell,” Harry continued. “The answers tell you if your Commitment Objective has to change. If your Commitment Objective for the call on Cheryl was to get her to agree to buy, and you find out that she can’t or won’t do that without consulting someone else, what do you suppose has to happen to your Commitment Objective?”

“I know exactly what you mean,” Mitch said. “If I find out she’s not the final decision-maker, my Commitment Objective becomes: Get her to agree to pass me on to the decision maker so I can make my presentation to him or her. Right?”

“If I go straight to the boss, I quit wasting my time with underlings. Wrong.”

“Wrong,” Harry said, causing Mitch to do a double-take. “That’s another common selling error. A lot of salespeople think, ‘If I could just go straight to the big boss, I could quit wasting my time talking to underlings.’ Wrong, wrong, wrong. In the first place, you’re not ready to make a presentation to anybody yet. In the second place, the big boss will rarely make a major buying decision without consulting anyone else. If Cheryl isn’t the final decision-maker, that doesn’t mean she’s just some time-wasting obstacle you have to get around. More likely she could be a key ally to you in making the sale. So could the users and the technical specialists.”

Mitch thought it over. “All right,” he said, “if my new Commitment Objective isn’t to get a meeting with the final decision-maker, what is it?”

“Well, how about this: Suppose you could get Cheryl to agree to put you in touch with all of the parties who will have a say in the buying decision, either together or separately. Not so that you can make a presentation to them, but so you can ask them the same kinds of questions you’re going to ask Cheryl in this next column.” Harry tapped the column labeled “Your Customer’s Position.”

“The ‘Customer’s Position’ column is the one with questions that are going to tell me what to sell?” Mitch asked.

“Yep. These are the kinds of issues you’ll probe to uncover the key needs behind the five buying decisions. This is how you’ll discover those needs you’re going to agree upon with Cheryl in Act 4. And since you want to understand and agree on the needs of everyone with an important voice in the buying decision, you’ll need access to all of them before you’re ready to make a professional presentation.”

“Hmmm,” Mitch mused. “You said earlier that if I use Action Selling ®, I’ll run into fewer objections when I finally ask customers to agree to buy. Let me guess some more: That’s because I’m going to uncover a lot of potential objections with this questioning, aren’t I? So when I make my presentation, I can anticipate and address them up front.”

“I’m going to uncover a lot of potential objections with questioning.”

“Very good,” Harry said. You’re a smart guy, Mitch, he thought. I didn’t pick up on that as fast when I was learning the Action Selling ® system. “When you present your company and your products, you’ll be talking about how you will address specific needs that all parties to the buying decision have already agreed are the most important ones. You’re a lot less likely to get sandbagged late in the game with an objection based on some issue you never heard about. You’ll know what to sell because you’re on the same page with the buyers about what’s important and what isn’t—so you can sell a solution to their needs instead of selling a generic commodity. Hence the term: differentiate.”

“I get it,” Mitch said, looking at the map. “Questions about issues in the ‘Customer’s Position’ column let me find out things like why Cheryl cared so much about lead time.”

“And how might knowing that affect your answer to her question about the kind of lead time you can offer—when you’re ready to answer it, I mean?” Harry asked.

Mitch thought. “I think I see where you’re going,” he said. “For an account her size, we could accommodate any cycle she needs. I was an idiot to say, ‘Our usual lead time is five days’ and let it go at that.”

“Look at the bright side,” Harry said. “If that makes you an idiot, you’ve got a lot of company among the salespeople you compete with. But now you’re going to know better.”

Harry tapped the “Customer’s Position” column again. “If you want to differentiate yourself as a consultant who is there to help, and not just to sell a gadget, you have to uncover the issues that actually drive the buying decision. What does Cheryl’s company really stand to gain from this purchase? How can it save money?
How can it make money? In other words, how does her company win if it makes the right decision?

“You have to uncover the issues that actually drive the buying decision.”

“Beyond that,” Harry continued, “how does Cheryl herself win if she makes a good choice? What problems are causing her pain? What opportunities could she grasp? What kind of solution would reduce her personal headaches and maybe even let her come out of the deal looking like a corporate hero? That’s the solution you ultimately want to present. That’s what you, your product, and your company should represent to her. That’s what to sell. And how do you discover the needs that would let you present that kind of solution?”

“Then I shut my big yap and listen.”

“I ask questions,” Mitch replied, the light bulb in his head shining brightly now. “Then I shut my big yap and listen to the answers.”

“Bingo,” Harry said. “Now then, you know the purpose behind these questions. You know what kind of information you’re trying to uncover. And you know what you’re going to do with that information—namely, agree on needs with the customer and then craft a presentation about your company and your products that specifically address those needs. What questions do you have for me at this point?”

“I’ve got plenty,” Mitch said, smiling like a good student. “How? I mean, you’ve told me the ‘what.’ Now, what does Action Selling ® have to say about how I should ask these questions so that I find out what I need to know?”

“Good question,” Harry said. He looked at his watch. “What do you say we go have some lunch, then come back here and continue?”