“It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.” - James Thurber
It’s like fingernails down a chalkboard for me. There is a Friday night gathering of the neighbors out in front of the house. The kids are all riding scooters and doing their best to imitate Tony Romo in their game of two-hand-touch football. As one of the 3-year-olds begins to pull caffeine-free sodas out of the cooler and hand them out to the other kids, the child is constantly talking to every parent and child as he peddles his wares looking for his next customer. Here comes the fingernails down the chalkboard… one of the adults makes the comment, “Boy, he sure is gonna make a great salesman someday. That boy sure can talk!”
Why does everyone think the best salesperson is always the best “talker?” It’s as if that is the only skill needed to be a good salesperson? In my 20 years of experience in sales and sales management, I have not found that to be true. Some of the successful salespeople I have observed were good talkers, but oftentimes, they were not the best speakers. In fact, the most successful salespeople I have met were not the best talkers at all. They held a much more valuable selling skill, persuasive questioning.
When you want to persuade another person towards a certain action, many methods can be utilized. From a sales standpoint, there are three levels of persuasion most often utilized. Choosing which level of persuasion to use can be determined by the situation and the level of rapport you have with the customer. When in doubt, the Open Question method of persuasion will tend to deliver the greatest results. Let’s define each of the three levels and when they could be used.
Why not just tell them what they should do? As a professional salesperson, you know that it is never our role to be a “pushy salesperson.” A pushy salesperson will attempt to tell a prospect what they need to do without any input from the customer themselves. A pushy salesperson will attempt to fit a square peg into a round hole just to make the sale. The Direct Statement should not be interpreted as the pushy salesperson approach. There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a direct approach with a customer or prospect when delivered for all the right reasons. If the product or service you are selling is truly a great fit for the customer, the salesperson can take a direct statement by simply telling the customer about the benefits of purchasing the product or service. The success of the Direct Statement can be heavily influenced by the level of rapport the salesperson has with the prospect. If the rapport is high with a mutual respect between the two individuals, this approach is not only appropriate; it may be appreciated more than any other approach.
“You said you are looking for a Network Server that can handle the demands of an online web application. This model, the XLR 5000, has been proven in Fortune 500 data centers for over three years. It is your best choice.”
In some cases the level of rapport may not be as high making the Direct Statement a poor choice. As a professional salesperson let’s remember that our role is to seek out needs (pains, problems, issues, etc.) that our product or service can cure. Then, make our prospects aware of our product or service and the benefits to be gained; namely that their pains and problems will cease. If we feel that being direct with a prospect is not going to be our best option because of the level of rapport or possibly the customer’s personality and style, we can utilize the next level of persuasion. This level of persuasion is called the Direct Question.
The Direct Question form of persuasion is a bit “softer” than the Direct Statement. Instead of telling the prospect what their best option is, we engage them by asking them for their thoughts on our preferred solution.
- “Have you thought about a proven Network Server like the XLR 5000?”
- “What do you think about a model like the XLR 5000 which has been used by very demanding Fortune 500 firms for the past three years?”
In the examples above, the first question is a closed question. It will result in a “yes” or “no” response. From there, the salesperson could provide more information about the XLR 5000 if they say “no” or ask for their thoughts if they say, “Yes, I have thought about it.” The second question is an open question. It gets the prospect to tell the salesperson what their thoughts are on the XLR 5000, if any. This form of persuasion invites feedback from the prospect and lets them know that you value their opinion. At the same time, the question contains a suggestion on the preferred solution from the salesperson. The template for this method of persuasion is “Have you thought about _____________________________?”
Be careful not to turn this method into derogatory or condescending questions. Those types of questions will turn you into that “pushy salesperson” that nobody wants to be around. Examples of pushy and derogatory Direct Questions that you WOULD NOT want to use would be:
- “Why wouldn’t you want to buy the XLR 5000?”
- “Do you think you can find a better solution than the XLR 5000?”
The Indirect Questions method of persuasion is the most inviting form of persuasion because it puts the prospect in total control of the situation. Remember that people only buy for one of two reasons, either they have a “want” or they have a “need.” Either way, they are looking for a solution. If the salesperson understands the customer’s need and has a solution to fill that need, they can communicate the solution to the customer by asking instead of telling. This level of asking is different from the previous method because the solution itself is not included in the question.
- “You stated your new online application will require heavy use of server resources, what type of solution do you have in mind?”
- “If you were going to select a solution today, what would that look like?”
- “How are you going to solve your application resource issues for this project?”
- “What are your top three criteria for selecting the appropriate solution?”
Even if the salesperson is confident that the perfect solution is the XLR 5000, Indirect Questions will put the customer in control of the conversation and the solution selection. In fact, after listening to their answers, the salesperson may actually come to a different conclusion than the solution they had initially suspected. The customer may need the XLR 8000!
The metaphor I like to use for this level of questioning and listening is that of a good doctor. You know that if a doctor takes the time to ask you symptom questions and listen to your answers, you are more comfortable with the diagnosis and prescription. A Sales Professional is no different. Ask your customers about their “pains,” understand their needs, make your professional diagnosis and then provide your prescription as a solution. You will find that customers are more willing to accept your recommendations when you take the appropriate time to question, listen and diagnose first.
So the next time you’re out with your neighbors and watching the children interact, remember that the best future salesperson may not be the one doing all the talking… they may be the one asking all the questions and trying to understand what drives the purchasing decisions of the parents. Questions like “Mommy, why do you always buy us the sodas with no caffeine?”
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