To truly hear your client, toss the ball back

Listen up.

Successful salespeople have long known customers prefer talking to listening. In my experience, I can say a good salesperson is a good listener, and a great salesperson is a great listener. The more you listen to what your prospects have to say, the more inclined they will be to like you. And it is no surprise to find out people buy products and services because they like you.

When your customer talks, you have the opportunity to gather information about their needs or the problems they need help in solving. If you don't listen, you may miss important facts and opinions. Consequently, you may make offers based on incomplete or inaccurate information.

Can you imagine your prospect's confidence in you, or your ability to truly understand their unique problems or needs, when it is obvious you haven't heard a word they've said?

People buy your product or service not because they understand it but because they feel you understand them.

It's easy enough to hope your prospect talks to you, but how do you encourage it? The best way to get the other party to talk is to ask questions.

Imagine a conversation as a game of catch: Every time you are talking, you have the ball. When you have the ball, you cannot gather important information because you're talking. The longer you hold the ball, the less your chances are for making a successful sale.

You want to throw the ball back to your prospect as soon as possible. To do that you have to ask a question. Your prospect will answer, thereby catching the ball. How long your prospect holds the ball without tossing it back to you depends on the type of questions you ask.

Yes or No

Closed-ended questions can be answered by a "yes" or "no." They don't work well when you are trying to encourage your prospect to talk, especially when using these phrases: "Is it?" "Are you?" "Will he?" "Does it?" "Have you?" "Do you?" "Has it?"

Listen to these exchanges:

You: "Is that important to you?"

Prospect: "No."

You: "Are you having any problems today?"

Prospect: "No."

You: "Are you happy with your present supplier?"

Prospect: "Yes."

The prospect's yes or no response constantly puts you on the spot to come up with a new question. On top of that, the response doesn't give you new information on which to base your next question. The conversation will quickly lack focus, and it won't be longer before you run out of things to ask.

Closed-ended questions bring the topic of conversation to a quick close. However, because they effectively focus the client and bring the conversation to an end, there are times when closed-ended questions can be a useful conversation tool: "Can I call you on Thursday?" "Is this the correct size?" "Is high quality important to you?"

There are many types of open-ended questions that encourage respondents to answer in their own words and ways. These questions tend to relax prospects and allow you to draw out information about needs and wants. Asking open-ended questions also keeps the conversation ball firmly in the prospect's court, providing you with new information on which to base your next question.

These questions often begin with the words: what, where, when, who, why and how. Rephrase the earlier closed-ended questions in this way: "Why is that important to you?" "What do you think the problem is this time?" "What do you like best about your present supplier?"

When you are talking, the prospect's mind may be wandering off in several directions. When the prospect is talking, you know what he or she is thinking. Your open-ended question is a request for more information and focuses the prospect on that specific topic, helping you direct the subject on the discussion.

Crucial advice to the sales professional: "Act, don't react." When you ask a question, you are taking action. When prospects answer your question, they are reacting, following your lead. When prospects are talking, you can direct their focus.

Gathering information to help a prospect fill a need or solve a problem is the goal of any sales call. Collect accurate background information in order to offer effective solutions. Along with the basic facts you need to uncover your prospect's attitudes and opinions, the kinds of things important to them.

In order to gather this information, you must uncover concrete facts to qualify the prospects, then direct your presentation to fit their particular needs. This can be done using fact-finding questions. These questions are simple and easy to answer. They make prospects feel relaxed, not grilled for information. "Who else is involved in this buying decision?" "How will this product (or service) be used?"

Facts are generally not enough. You also need to uncover attitudes and opinions, unspoken feelings. You need to discover the prospect's emotions and motivations for buying your product or service by asking open-ended, feeling-finding questions. "How do you feel about that?" "What has been your experience in this area?" Think specifically about the product or service you sell and ask specific feeling-finding questions to uncover your prospect's feelings, attitudes and opinions.

Avoid the pitfalls

Be aware of some potential traps when asking open-ended questions. One common tendency is to ask open-ended questions, followed by closed-ended questions before the prospect can reply. The prospect will most likely answer only the closed-ended question with the undesirable yes or no, or at best a brief response

Salesperson: "What did you think of that? Wasn't it a good idea?" Prospect: "Yes, I guess." The salesperson has answered her question, leaving the prospect with little to say. This sends the message the salesperson is not interested in the prospect's actual response. It is a nervous habit, a conversation filler.

To avoid this trap, pause after the open-ended question. Look at your prospect and wait for a response. This is called the Friendly, Silent, Questioning Stare, or FSQS. When you ask the question, look at your prospect with warmth and genuine interest. This look is friendly because you care about the person. It is silent because you are waiting for the person to respond. It is questioning because you are wondering what is on his or her mind. While it is not really a stare, you should look at the prospect openly and receptively, waiting for a response to your question.

Another trap to avoid is using the directive question. You do not want to manipulate your prospect into giving you a desired answer. Salesperson: "If I can show you how you can save money and time, that would interest you, wouldn't it?" Prospect: "I guess so."

I do not recommend using the traditional directive question. Instead, turn this type of question into a closed-ended, feeling-finding question. Salesperson: "If I can show you how you can save time and money, would that interest you?" Prospect: "Yes, that would interest me?"

It's easy to avoid this pitfall by replacing the words "That would interest you, wouldn't it? with "Would that interest you?" Even with this minor change, your prospect will only have a brief yes or no answer.

Use these questioning techniques to focus on subjects that will help you do the most effective job of solving your prospect's problems or filling their needs and wants.



Roy Chitwood is an author, trainer and consultant in sales and sales management and is president of Max Sacks International, Seattle.