Questions: The Answer to Sales
The Professionals Blueprint – How Harry saved his career
Mitch walked into Harry’s office and was stunned by the view through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the first hole at Bear Creek Country Club.
He whistled in appreciation. “They treat you pretty well here, Harry. You didn’t tell me you get to study golf every day. No wonder you beat me like a drum.”
They stood at the windows and watched a player tee off on number one and slice a drive far into the ninth fairway. “That guy hits it like me,” Mitch said.
“You had something else on your mind when we played,” Harry replied, grinning. “If we can put your selling game on track, maybe your golf game will improve too. Then I won’t feel so bad taking your money the next time we tee it up. Want to get to it?”
They moved to a small conference table across the room from Harry’s desk. “I’ve been thinking about our conversation last week, and something puzzles me,” Mitch said. “The things you said about my call on Cheryl Gross made a lot of sense. But how were you able to diagnose the problems so quickly? I’ve been trying for two years to figure out what’s wrong, and no luck. When I described that sales call to you it was as if you had a checklist of mistakes in your head and you could just watch me make them, one after the other. It was weird that you could give me the kind of analysis you did so quickly. How did you do it?”
“How were you able to diagnose my selling problems so quickly?”
“Simple,” Harry said. “Two words: Action Selling. Like I told you, Mitch, it’s taken my selling game to an entirely new level. Like you, I knew a lot about selling. But today, I’ve got a systematic approach to managing a sales call—and the whole sales process, from planning to following up. Once you understand it, you’ll have a framework that lets you diagnose and correct your own selling errors—like a navigation system that tells you when you’ve lost your way.”
“Yes, you said there was more to it than asking questions.”
“I’ve got a systematic approach—a navigation system that tells you when you’ve lost your way.”
“Think of it this way,” Harry said. “Action Selling is a research-based system that tells you, step by step, how to win over new customers and keep the ones you’ve already got. On one level, asking questions is just part of the process. But on another level, it’s the whole ballgame—because success at every step hinges on the quality of the questions you ask.
“You’re fighting a battle out there, Mitch, and the battlefield is the customer’s mind. Your ultimate goal is to win customers who are loyal enough to stop shopping for a better deal because they’re persuaded that you have become their business partner. And when I say ‘you,’ I mean you—not your company, not your products, not your presentation, and not your price. You used to be able to differentiate yourself from the competition based on your product features and your skill at describing them. But practically all products and services are perceived as commodities nowadays; there’s not much real difference between yours and the next guy’s.
“You’re fighting a battle, and the battlefield is the customer’s mind.”
“I used to claim that it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Today I’d tell you that the game isn’t about what you say, it’s about what you ask. Selling isn’t telling. The only way to gain a lasting competitive advantage today is to get customers to perceive you as a valuable consultant and partner instead of just another salesperson with a product pitch.
“Action Selling gives you a proven plan for becoming that kind of consultant,” Harry continued. “The keys that let you execute the plan are questioning and listening—not talking. You said that any salesperson who didn’t just fall off a turnip truck knows he’s supposed to ask questions to qualify a customer. But most salespeople are amateurs at questioning, no matter how long they’ve been selling. The professional, who wins against the competition, is the one who understands that selling is a process, who always knows what point he’s at in that process, who asks the best questions at every step, and who knows what to do next with the answers he hears. Execute that process better than your competitors do, and you win. Period.”
“The keys that let you execute the plan are questioning and listening.”
Mitch studied Harry. “You’re really sold on Action Selling, aren’t you?”
“Like I told you, it saved my career,” Harry said.
“So explain it to me. I’m ready.”
“Action Selling saved my career.”
Harry opened his day planner and took out a colorful laminated card and a blank page. He drew something quickly on the page. When he turned it around, Mitch saw a question mark divided into sections.
“Action Selling is based on a documented fact,” Harry began. “In the course of any major sale, every customer makes five crucial buying decisions. These decisions are always made in a predetermined order.”
First, Harry explained, the customer decides whether to “buy” the salesperson. “Does she like me? Does she trust me? Am I the person she wants to buy from?
“What do you notice about the salesperson portion of the question mark?” Harry asked.
“It’s larger than the rest.”
“That’s right. Whether to buy the salesperson is not just the first decision a customer makes, it’s the most important one. Everything else depends on it. That’s what determines whether somebody like Cheryl Gross will decide that maybe you’re worth more than 15 minutes of her time after all.”
“Whether to buy the salesperson is not just the first decision, it’s the most important one.”
After customers have “bought” the salesperson, Harry explained, they make a decision about the company he represents: Is it reputable? Is it a good match for the customer’s company?
Then they consider the product: Is it the right solution for the customer’s problem? How does it compare with competitive products? Then they decide about the price: Is the product worth the money?
Finally, they consider the “time to buy”: When do they want to take possession of the product? When does the buying decision actually need to be made?
“To summarize: In every major sale, customers make those five decisions in the same order,” Harry said. “And customers will not seriously consider a later decision until the earlier ones have been made. For you, that means you can’t sell your company or your product before you have sold yourself. For the customer, it means that trying to make those decisions in the wrong order leads to bad buying choices. Action Selling tells you how to manage a sales call so that the five decisions are considered in the proper order.”
“But what about customers like Cheryl?” Mitch asked. “She sure didn’t seem to be thinking of those decisions in that order.”
“It’s common that buyers like Cheryl will start out sounding as if price and delivery are the primary decisions. But remember when she asked, ‘Why should I buy from you?’ What decision was she considering?”
“Action Selling says that every sales call is like a drama with nine acts.”
“Probably the salesperson and company,” said Mitch. “So, what does Action Selling tell me to do?”
“Action Selling says that every sales call is like a drama with nine acts,” Harry said. “The salesperson has to be the director who keeps things moving in the right order. The order follows the sequence of the 5 Buying Decisions.” Tapping the laminated card in front of Mitch, he explained the Action Selling system like this:
Act 1: Commitment Objective. This act is like a prelude to the drama. Before any sales call begins, the salesperson first must determine a Commitment Objective for the call. A Commitment Objective is a goal that specifies an action the customer should agree to take — something you want the customer to agree to do that will move the sales process forward.
A Commitment Objective specifies an action the customer should agree to take.
‘“I’ll go in and deliver my pitch’ is not a Commitment Objective because it requires no action from the customer,” Harry said. He explained that at some point in the process, the Commitment Objective will be to get the customer to agree to buy the product. But in the early stages, the Commitment Objective more often will be something like getting the customer to agree to schedule another meeting with other decision-makers who will play a role in the buying process.
Action Selling insists that it is unprofessional to call on a customer without a specific Commitment Objective in mind, Harry told Mitch, because if a call doesn’t move the process forward in some way then it wastes the customer’s time as well as the salesperson’s. “No Commitment Objective, no call,” Harry said.
“Thinking you could get a $2 million deal during your first meeting was a stretch.”
“Since every call needs a Commitment Objective, you need to determine what you can realistically achieve. Maybe the idea that you could get a $2 million deal during your first meeting with Cheryl Gross was a stretch.”
“Yeah, in 15 minutes. What was I thinking?” Mitch mumbled.
“Questions come into play here because you have to ask yourself good questions about what a reasonable Commitment Objective would be,” Harry continued. “Then, the questions you ask the customer during the call may give you cues that your Commitment Objective needs to change. But if that happens, you always pick a new Commitment Objective. You never abandon the goal of getting the customer to agree to take some action. You never forget that that’s ultimately why you’re there.”
“So, agreeing on a longer meeting would have been a good Commitment Objective with Cheryl?” Mitch asked, taking notes.
“It would have been more realistic,” Harry agreed.
Act 2: People Skills. This act opens the actual call. The salesperson begins to address the customer’s first major buying decision—that is, the salesperson starts to “sell himself” by demonstrating that he is likeable, credible, and trustworthy.
“You’ve been trying to do that mostly by talking, just as I used to,” Harry told Mitch. “But the actual key to it is listening. You ask open-ended questions that encourage the customer to do the talking—about herself, her background, and her company.
“Considering Cheryl’s get-down-to-business style, a lot of Act 2 conversation is probably not going to happen,” Harry conceded. “But asking about her new position or perhaps where she had worked prior to Currentech might have been a good idea.”
“I can see that, Harry,” said Mitch. “But she caught me off guard when she started the meeting the way she did.”
“That’s all the more reason why you need to have a questioning plan going into a sales call. With a questions plan you’re better able to respond to the curve balls that get thrown at you.”
Act 2 is the first of three acts that Action Selling devotes to the customer’s first major buying decision, Harry explained. “That’s how crucial it is to ‘sell yourself.’”
“With a questions plan you’re better able to respond to curve balls.”
Act 3: Ask the Best Questions. Having established rapport and shown interest in learning something about the customer, the salesperson begins to zero in on gaining a better understanding of the customer’s situation. Action Selling teaches that most of the “selling” that occurs in any call actually takes place in Act 3 before salespeople present their product.
“In other words, the majority of the selling is happening when the customer is doing most of the talking,” Harry said.
“Most of the selling is happening when the customer is doing the talking.”
“I’ve never thought of it that way,” Mitch said. “I’ve always felt that I had to be persuasive—like I had to change their thinking. You make it sound like buyers are more openminded than I think they are.”
“Yes. That’s exactly how Action Selling works. A sale needs to be ‘opened’ before it can be ‘closed.’ When it’s done properly, the questioning process opens the customer’s mind. While you are thoroughly and creatively exploring the customer’s situation, they become open to doing business with you.”
“I can see that in an ideal situation, Harry. But Cheryl wasn’t in that frame of mind. ‘What?’ ‘How much?’ and ‘Why you?’ doesn’t exactly suggest an open mind.”
Harry considered Mitch’s comment. You don’t sound open to what I’m telling you, either, he thought. I should practice what I preach and ask some questions. Out loud, he said, “Let me ask, Mitch, how would you categorize the success of your meeting with Cheryl using the approach that you took?”
Mitch was stopped in his tracks. He realized that Harry wasn’t going to buy his argument that his selling situation was unique. “It was a complete failure,” he admitted.
“What I’m sharing with you won’t work every time. But from my recent experience, when Action Selling is done properly, the results are amazing. I heard an interview with Tiger Woods where they asked him how he could hit the ball so well in the wind at the British Open. He said something like, ‘When you hit the ball properly, the wind doesn’t have that much effect.’ What I’m telling you, Mitch, is that when you follow this sales process, the tough situations you’re describing are manageable.”
“With this sales process, the tough situations are manageable.”
Mitch, feeling a little embarrassed, turned over the laminated card to look at the “Ask the Best Questions Map” on the other side.
“Hold on,” Harry said. “A lot of what Action Selling has to teach you about questions pertains to that map and to Act 3. For now, let’s just say that Asking the Best Questions at this point in the sales process gives you the information you need to complete the next six acts of the drama. Act 3 is where you find out how the customer’s buying process works and who else might be involved. It’s also where you learn about the real key needs that your solution will have to address.
“In other words,” Harry continued, “Act 3 is where you find out how you’re going to present your company and your products to this customer so that you sound like a consultant with a solution instead of a generic salesperson with a generic pitch for a commodity product that the customer probably could buy cheaper from someone else.”
“I open the customer’s mind to doing business by asking the best questions.”
“Wait a second,” Mitch said, catching up with his note taking. “So I open the customer’s mind to doing business with me by asking the best questions? Okay, go ahead.”
Act 4: Agree on Need. One primary goal of Asking the Best Questions is to uncover at least three unique, important needs that the salesperson’s products could address. In Act 4, which is short but crucial, the salesperson confirms his understanding of those needs. He does this, Harry explained, simply by saying: “As I understand it, you’re looking for a solution that will do X, Y, and Z. Is that correct?”
This helps the salesperson “sell himself” by demonstrating that he has listened carefully to the customer’s explanation of her needs. It also cements and clarifies those needs in the customer’s own mind.
“Above all,” Harry said, “it allows the salesperson to focus everything else he says and does upon specific needs that the customer has already agreed are important. Until you have agreed on needs with a customer, Mitch, you don’t know how to present your company or your products as anything but commodities.”
“This is different from how I’ve always done it—and how we used to do it when you first showed me the ropes,” Mitch said. “We would find a need and fill it. Then we’d find another one and fill it.”
“Until you have agreed on needs, you don’t know how to present anything but commodities.”
“That’s right,” Harry confirmed. “With Act 4, we don’t get ahead of ourselves. We thoroughly analyze the customer’s situation before we present. This avoids selling errors that cause resistance later in the call.”
Harry smiled at Mitch. “You’ll like the next parts,” he said. “Here comes your chance to gab a little. But the thing is, now you don’t have to gab nearly as much.”
Act 5: Sell the Company. Until this point in the call, the customer has done the vast majority of the talking. And by encouraging that to happen while listening carefully, the salesperson has been “selling himself.” Now it’s time to address the customer’s second major buying decision—the one about whether to “buy” the salesperson’s company.
“To sell your company, you describe its reputation and its capabilities,” Harry said. “But you can throw out most of your canned presentation, and do this more briefly and powerfully. Why? Because now you can focus your description on some of the specific needs that you and the customer have agreed upon. You’re now able to tell this individual what your company can do to solve her problems—especially, why your company is a perfect match for hers.”
Act 6: Sell the Product. In the same manner, the salesperson presents his products or services not with a canned presentation, but in a way that specifically illustrates how they would address the key needs agreed upon in Act 4.
“You’ll do less talking, but what you say will mean a whole lot more.”
“This is much quicker than a data-dump pitch where you present a lot of product features the customer doesn’t care about, hoping that something will interest her because it once interested somebody else,” Harry said. “It’s also far more effective. You’ll do less talking than you’re used to, but what you say will mean a whole lot more to the customer.”
Mitch looked up from his notes and grinned. “To sell myself, I let the customer talk. To sell my company and my products, I talk, but I don’t blabber. Is that it?”
“You got it.”
“But this sounds harder to do because I can’t practice my pitch ahead of the call. I’ll need to custom-tailor each product presentation as I deliver it.”
“Yes, you will,” Harry agreed. “But at the same time, you’ll deliver a much more powerful message because it zeros in on the customer’s unique situation.”
Act 7: Ask for Commitment. Before the call began, the salesperson established a Commitment Objective. He may have changed it as new information was revealed, but he still wants the customer to agree to take some action that will move the sales process forward.
“If the commitment you want from the customer is to purchase your product,” Harry said, “first you quickly summarize the product features that corresponded to the customer’s key needs. Then you quote the price. Then, immediately, you ask, ‘How does that sound?’ If the customer agrees that it sounds good, you ask, ‘Would you like to go ahead with it?’
“If your Commitment Objective is to schedule another meeting, then, instead of a price, you quote the time needed for that meeting. The ‘features’ you summarize are about what the customer will gain by meeting with you.”
“I understand,” Mitch said, making a note.
Act 8: Confirm the Sale. If the customer agrees, the salesperson takes out a sort of insurance policy against buyer’s remorse. This is a quick, three-step process, summed up by the terms assure, appreciate, and future event. First, assure the customer that she has made the right decision. Then thank her and tell her you appreciate her commitment. Then schedule a future event that the customer can look forward to instead of worrying about the commitment she made.
“The future event is a neat concept,” Harry said. “You’ll learn about that when you start to pursue Action Selling Certification yourself—which you’re going to want to do.”
Mitch had been thinking the same thing for several minutes.
Act 9: Replay the Call. After every sales call, without exception, the salesperson conducts a mental review to identify what he did well during each act and what he should have done better.
“Remember when you said I analyzed your call on Cheryl Gross as if I had a mental checklist of mistakes I could watch you make?” Harry asked. “You should have a pretty good idea by now where that checklist came from. But I have a lot of practice in using it because I apply it to myself after every sales call I make. I didn’t learn the Action Selling system once, improve my skills, and then plateau again. By replaying my calls, I keep getting more and more effective. The improvement never ends.”
“The thing that lets me climb the steps is questioning skills.”
Mitch made a final note and leaned back in his chair. “I appreciate this, Harry,” he said. “Even if I walked out of here right now, I think I’d be a lot better off than I was. But if I understand you right, these nine acts are the basic steps in the process. The thing that really lets me climb the steps is questioning skills. Is that right?”
“And you and Action Selling have more to tell me about questioning skills?” He pointed again to the Ask the Best Questions Map on the other side of the laminated card.
“Then tell me, please.”
So Harry did.