Act 3 Ask the Best Questions

It’s not what you say. It’s what you ask.

When Matt returned to the table with fresh coffees, Joe tore the top page from his notepad and handed it to him. Matt saw a few simple notes arranged in two columns.

Joe sipped his coffee until Matt looked up from the page, as if to say, “Well…?”

“Whenever a professional salesperson engages with a prospect,” Joe began, “the salesperson has two fundamental decisions to make: what to sell and how to sell it. You’d think the first decision—what to sell—would be obvious, wouldn’t you?”

Matt nodded warily. “You sell your company’s products or services—whatever it makes or does,” he said. “Of course,” he added quickly, “you have to find out which of your products and services the customer is likely to buy.” I think I got that one right, he thought.

“Think about the Commitment Objectives we discussed,” Joe said. “Sometimes we sell a product, but other times we sell an appointment or a meeting, don’t we?”

Act 3 Questions:

  • What to sell
  • How to sell

Damn! Matt thought. Missed another one! He considered the question. Finally he took a long sip of coffee, smiled, and leaned back in his chair. “I didn’t think about appointments as products, but I sell them all the time. I don’t believe I’ve ever uncovered needs for an appointment, though. I’m focused on uncovering needs for my product. What would Action Selling say about that?”

Joe smiled back, but silently he wondered: Nine years of making the same fundamental mistake. Matt appears open to changing his game, but is he flexible enough actually to make the changes? All I can do is invest some time and energy in him and see what happens.

“Your Commitment Objective would drive the questioning process,” Joe said aloud. “Here’s what Action Selling has to say about finding out what to sell and how to sell: You do it by asking questions—the best questions. In fact, Action Selling says that two-thirds of the ‘selling’ you’re going to do occurs right here in Act 3 of the sales drama. And you’re going to do all that selling not by telling the customer about your products but by asking the customer about his situation.”

Matt’s eyes widened. Two-thirds of the selling occurs before I ever present the product? He thought. I want Joe to understand that I’m interested in learning, but I don’t want him to know how much I need to learn. I’m a veteran. He began taking notes.

Joe explained that his handwritten chart was a partial depiction of a tool that Action Selling calls the Ask the Best Questions Map. He showed Matt the full map on the back of the laminated card he had given him earlier.

“Let’s start with what Action Selling says about the first decision you have to make: what to sell,” Joe said. He tapped his pen on the chart’s right-hand column.

Two-thirds of the selling occurs in Act 3.

Here is what Joe told Matt:

“We live in a world where most products and services have become commodities. Whatever you’re selling, chances are that other companies sell something very much like it. If you’re peddling a commodity, the buyer has very little reason to choose between you and your competitors on any basis except one: price. For the salesperson, that’s a loser’s game.

“Action Selling says that the way to beat the game is to differentiate your offering by presenting it not just as another commodity but as a solution for a particular need—a remedy for the buyer’s pain or a stepping stool that lets the buyer reach up and grab an opportunity. The salesperson who performs that differentiating process best is the one who wins.

“Asking the best questions,” Joe explained, “means asking questions that uncover the best needs—the best targets to sell to. Think of these, he said, as high-yield needs: problems or opportunities facing the buyer that will let you differentiate yourself from the competition so that what you eventually present to the client is a solution and not a commodity.

“Care to guess where you’ll find the highest-yield needs?” Joe asked. “The ones that will ultimately determine the prospect’s buying decision? I’ll give you a hint.”

He reached across the table to his makeshift chart. In the “What to Sell’ column, “Needs” were identified as Problems and Opportunities, as he had just explained. Under “Issues” he had written, “Company,” “Personal,” and “Money.” Now Joe circled the word “Personal.”

Matt stared at the chart. Then it hit him. “What’s the client’s personal stake in the issue? That’s where the highest-yield needs are,” he answered confidently.

Identifying “High Yield Needs” helps you differentiate.

“Wait, don’t tell me,” he said, as Joe began to nod. “The ‘company’ issues I’m looking for are about how my product can help the company solve a problem or grab an opportunity. That’s very important. But the ‘personal’ issues are about the buyers themselves: How do they win if the problem is solved? How do they lose if it isn’t? I need to figure out the buyer’s personal stake in the problem or opportunity and position us as the solution.”

“What buying decision will they be making at this point?”

Matt thought, I’d better get this one right. I’m starting to gain some credibility. He looked at the Action Selling process chart. “Well, we’re still in Act 3, so that would be the salesperson decision, right?”

Joe clapped his hands slowly in applause. “Yes,” he said. “And you’re exactly right about looking into the buyer’s personal stake in the issue to find the highest-yield needs. Now, here’s how Action Selling suggests you drill down to find those high-yield needs.”

Joe sketched a funnel on his notepad and began adding labels to its different sections.

“You begin with a question designed to identify a broad or general need,” Joe said, talking as he drew. “For instance, you might ask the prospect: ‘If you look at your company’s current situation, what would you say is the single biggest challenge you face?’ The customer tells you about a problem or an opportunity.

Leverage Questions turn up the heat on an issue.

“Then,” Joe continued, “you follow up with a question that uncovers specific needs: ‘In your opinion, what’s causing this problem?’ The customer answers.

“So now you ask your third question—what Action Selling calls a ‘Leverage’ Question: ‘What are the consequences to your company and to you personally if the problem isn’t solved and the current situation drags on?’

“Leverage Questions are open-ended questions that uncover high-yield needs,” Joe explained. “Good Leverage Questions can concern company needs, but the very best ones usually aim at revealing the buyer’s personal needs: ‘What’s in it for me?’ That raises the emotional heat under the issue. When the buyer’s personal stake in a solution is clarified, the salesperson understands the need more clearly—and most often, so does the buyer. That usually means the buyer’s sense of urgency will increase; that is, the buyer will perceive the need as more crucial and a solution as more important.

“In other words,” Joe said, “Leverage Questions not only clarify the most urgent needs, they also make those needs even more urgent in the buyer’s perception.”

“That sounds great,” Matt said. “I’ve been selling long enough to know what you mean about the emotional force behind ‘What’s in it for me?’ I’ve seen it happen, and I believe it. But some customers don’t want to let a salesperson probe this much. They want to hurry things along, just like they’ll do when I’m trying to follow the right sequence of the five buying decisions. You know, the problem we talked about in Act 2, where I’m still trying to ‘sell myself,’ and they want me to talk about my products.”

“Three things about that,” Joe responded. “First, research shows that it’s more important to customers that the salesperson understand their needs than that they understand the salesperson’s products or services. Prospective customers have a strong need to feel understood. You’ll be surprised how willing nearly all of them are to discuss their needs when you are genuinely interested.

“Here’s the second thing,” Joe continued. “You have to earn the right to ask more questions. Preface your questions with a logical reason why you’re asking them. For instance: ‘So I can recommend the best possible solution, I need to understand… and fill-in-the- blank.’

Best Questions Principles

  • Customers have a strong need to feel understood.
  • You have to earn the right to ask questions.
  • How you phrase questions is critical.

“Finally,” Joe said, “if you ask ‘the best’ questions” (he used his fingers to put quotes around “The Best”), “customers don’t mind answering them. Questions that are poorly phrased or redundant, questions whose answers are patently obvious—those will end Act 3 abruptly. The customer who wants to rush you straight to the product or price decision is probably telling you that your questions stink.”

Nuts, Matt thought. He knows I’ve been asking “the wrong” questions. Matt visualized himself drawing quotation marks around “The Wrong” with his fingers.

This time it was Joe who stood and gathered their coffee cups. “I’m switching to soda,” he said. “More coffee for you?”

“No thanks. One of those bottles of water would be good though.”

Joe returned with their drinks. “That’s enough for now about questions that tell you what to sell,” he said. “Let’s go back and look at determining how to sell. I’ll make it quick; we’d better go to the gate pretty soon to catch the plane.”

Matt pointed obligingly to the “how to sell” column on Joe’s chart. “Looks like I want to know about the competition I’m up against, the buyer’s time frame, and the people who influence the buying decision,” he said.

“Right,” Joe said. How to sell, he explained, is a question of strategy. To develop that strategy, you need to uncover things such as who your competitors are (the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the other suppliers the buyer is considering) and the buyer’s time frame (the urgency to make the purchase). You also must identify the buying influences. In business-to-business selling, that often means you must understand the politics of the customer’s organization: Who will really make this buying decision? Who influences it? Who is affected by it? By what process will the decision actually be made?

“How do you discover all of that stuff?” Joe asked rhetorically. “By asking questions. The answers to what-to-sell and how-to-sell questions also will tell you if you have the right Commitment Objective for a call.”

“Wait a minute!” Matt interrupted. “Suddenly I’m changing my Commitment Objective in the middle of a call?”

“Maybe,” Joe replied. “After you gather Act 3 information, you make a decision: Is my Commitment Objective still the right one? For example, do I need to meet with other people in the buyer’s company? Should I skip some of the sales milestones? Should I add milestones?”

Matt laid down his pen and notepad. “That makes a lot of sense,” he said. “I know I’ve used this strategy, but I never had a process for doing it. This is good stuff, Joe.” I hope he has confidence in me, Matt thought. I really want to learn how to do Action Selling. I know I can do it, and I’ll make more money, too, if he’ll give me a chance.

“A lot of salespeople don’t sell strategically,” Joe continued. “For instance, they’re afraid to ask the buyer who else is competing to make this sale or who else is involved in the buying decision.”

“Hey,” Matt protested, “I’ve been there, and that’s a real problem. I’ve seen buyers get downright huffy: ‘Listen, buddy, I’m not going to tell you who your competition is!’”

“That can happen,” Joe said, “if you haven’t earned the right to ask the question or if you ask it the wrong way. Try phrasing it in a way that lets the buyer know it’s in her interest as well as yours to give you the information: ‘So I can zero in on the capabilities that would separate us from the competition, can you tell me who you’re considering besides us?’”

They began to gather their belongings, preparing to leave the lounge. “Hold on,” Joe said, as Matt was about to put away his pen and paper. “Since two-thirds of your selling occurs here in Act 3, this is the most crucial part of the sales drama. We’ve covered a lot of ground. Let me give you four key things to remember about asking the best questions.”

Matt made notes of these four points:

  1. “Asking the Best Questions” lets you establish that you’re a good listener and that you’re genuinely interested in helping the client find solutions to his needs. In Action Selling’s terms, it helps you sell yourself. That’s the customer’s first buying decision.
  2. It allows you to identify and clarify the best targets to aim at when you present your company and product— the needs that let you differentiate yourself from competitors by selling a solution, not a commodity.
  3. It enables you to leverage the emotional side of the buying decision by further zeroing in on high-yield needs— the ones that have the greatest personal urgency to the client.
  4. It allows you to sell strategically, and to adjust your Commitment Objective so that you can keep the process moving forward with the right people and at the right pace.

“Got it?” Joe asked.

“Got it,” Matt said, pocketing his pen. “This is going to take some practice, though. I’ve got a call tomorrow morning in Denver with a great new prospect. Maybe we can talk about how I might use Action Selling for that call.”

“Sure,” Joe said. “Let’s go catch a plane.”

He understands well enough, Joe thought as they walked toward the gate. But will he use it? Or will he use it only when I’m observing his calls? I’ll see the answer in his numbers.