In a recent column, we reviewed the art of asking questions. We learned how important it was not to ask closed-ended questions where the prospect only has to answer yes or no. Closed-ended questions create an atmosphere where the conversation begins to sound like an interrogation. Instead, we learned that we should be asking open-ended questions that allow the prospect to elaborate on his or her answers.
Open-ended questions also allow us to gather more information as to our prospect's needs and wants. The prospect's response also delivers new information on which to base our next question.
Above all, people prefer talking to listening, and the more you listen, the better your prospects will like you. And prospects buy products from people they like.
Sir Laurence Olivier once advised: "You have to have the humility to prepare and the self-confidence to bring it off." Likewise, the best salespeople in the business prepare a list of standard qualification questions to be used in every sales call.
Being prepared also means that in addition to the standard queries, they are prepared with specific questions that relate to the prospect being called upon.
Your goal on any sales call is to gather information that will allow you to help a prospect fill a need or solve a problem. You need to gather accurate background information that will allow you to offer effective solutions.
Along with the basic facts you need to uncover your prospect's attitudes and opinions - the kinds of things that are important to him. In order to gather this important information you must ascertain basic, concrete facts that allow you to qualify the prospect and then direct your presentation to fit the particular needs of the prospect.
These are called fact-finding questions. They should be simple and easy to answer. They should keep the prospect relaxed and not give the prospect the impression that they are being grilled for information. Some examples are:
- "Who else will be involved in this buying decision?"
- "How will this product (or service) be used?"
- "What product (or service) do you currently use?"
Facts alone are generally not enough. You also need to uncover the prospect's attitudes and opinions, his or her unspoken feelings. You need to uncover their emotions and motivations for buying your product or service. To find out this important information you have to ask open-ended feeling-finding questions such as:
- "How do you feel about that?"
- "Why is that important to you?"
- "What is your opinion on that change?"
Think specifically about the product or service you sell. Try to think of specific feeling-finding questions you can ask to uncover your prospect,s feelings, attitudes and opinions. It is a common tendency among sales people first learning to ask open-ended questions to ask open-ended questions followed immediately with closed-ended ones.
The prospect will most likely answer to the second question and the answer will be 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."
If you examine the salesperson's question you may have noticed something else amiss here. The salesperson has, in effect, answered his own question, leaving the prospect with really little to say. This sends a very bad message to the prospect that, in fact, the salesperson does not really have much interest in the prospect’s actual response.
Watch out for this common mistake and teach yourself to avoid it. One thing that you can do to stop yourself from this tendency is to pause after your open-ended question and look at your prospect, waiting for a response. This is called the Friendly, Silent, Questioning Stare, or FSQS. My friend Jack Berman of Berman Publications developed it. Here is how it works: After asking your prospect a good open-ended question, stop, remain silent and look at your prospect with warmth and genuine interest. This look is friendly as you care about that person. It is silent as you are waiting for the person to respond. Your look is questioning as you are wondering what is on his or her mind. An additional technique is called the reflective question.
By repeating a few key words from the speaker’s last statement you encourage the prospect to continue to talk on the same subject.
Prospect: "I played golf every Sunday until I broke my rib."
Salesperson: "Broke your rib?"
Prospect: "I have wasted my entire week getting records in order for the tax audit."
Salesperson: "Tax audit?"
The prospect will sense that you are interested in what he or she has to say and will continue to talk on the same subject, filling in with even more detail. Just make sure you use this technique sparingly or you will sound like an echo. There is one kind of question that is manipulative. It is called a directive question where the salesperson directs the prospect to the 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 suggest you turn this kind of question into a closed-ended, feeling-finding question instead:
Salesperson: "If I can show you how you can save time and money, would that interest you?"
Prospect: ‘Yes, that would interest me." Even with this minor change your prospect will only have a brief yes or no answer.
These techniques for drawing people out and encouraging them to talk about themselves can be an invaluable, social asset. Practice these techniques around your co-workers or around your dinner table. The more you practice the smoother and more comfortable these techniques will be for you.
Roy Chitwood is an author, trainer and consultant in sales and sales management and is president of Max Sacks International, Seattle.