Asking the right questions

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Getting the edge in professional selling
Terence A. Hockenhull

I DISCUSSED sales collaterals and made the point that they rarely play any significant role in winning sales. The cost of sending a salesperson out to meet with a client is significant. A client of mine told me that he had quantified the cost of a salesperson on a sales call at P1,750 — and this figure doesn’t include the commissions paid (on successful sales). Even the most beautifully printed brochures are a cheap option in comparison to an actual sales call.

As I suggested last week, few clients take the time to read printed material unless they have pre-identified needs. For example, a salesperson might pass by my office and drop off an armful of brochures detailing a range of photocopying machines. I might casually scan the brochures but it is unlikely I will be prepared to devote any amount of time to reading them thoroughly and reviewing the product specs unless I have already determined the need to replace my aging photocopier. If I haven’t thought about the need to replace, neither the salesperson’s pitch nor the brochures are going to “create a need.”

The main reason a salesperson meets with a client is to enter into a dialogue. If all the salesperson is doing is talking, this can hardly be described as a dialogue! The professional salesperson recognizes that the easiest way to proceed is to ask questions. Firstly, by asking questions (and of course, listening to the answers provided), he maintains control of the sales meeting and the selling process. This is essential if potential and usual objections are to be addressed before they arise. The questions will also push the customer to provide information that may help the salesperson select appropriate products and models from his range that will address the client’s needs.

Even the most inexperienced of salespersons know that there is certain key information that must be collected in order to find out more about customers. Yet these “profiling” questions are often unnecessary if only some basic research were conducted prior to the sales meeting. The salesperson shouldn’t be “interrogating” the client about his business. By doing so, he will demonstrate that he hasn’t done his homework and, by default, show that he cares little about the client. Also, the client, if forced to answer a string of such questions, will quickly become bored and disinterested and, in some cases at least, cease to provide answers or responses in a positive manner to the salespersons.

Each industry is different and each salesperson will have his own way of gathering information from the client. Getting a picture of what the client is doing at the moment is very helpful. He should establish what the client is using now (brand, size, model, etc.). Use of equipment would similarly be interesting as well as history and age of the machine. This provides an effective base of background information. Nonetheless, it should be recognized that this information in isolation will not help the salesperson sell his product.

Asking the client what they like and dislike about the machine currently in place will give a clear idea of what the customer is hoping for in any new acquisition (even though, at this point in the sale, he might not have formulated a need to replace!) Suppose the client says that he doesn’t like the old machine because he cannot get spare parts and service support and backup is not particularly good, but also comments that the machine is easy to use and efficient. The salesperson, on hearing this information can mentally review his own products and service support. If he knows this is an area his company excels, he already has “ammunition” for later in the selling process when it is time to describe his own products. If, on the other hand, the vendor’s company is a reseller without a service facility, the salesperson will know that he will have to present an alternative method of repair and service (or convince the client that his equipment is so reliable servicing will be unnecessary!).

Although assumptions may be made about the customer’s needs, the salesperson should confirm as much information as possible before proceeding to the product pitch. Matching the product to the client’s responses is what wins the sale. He might say, “Let me summarize. You need to replace your equipment with a smaller, more energy efficient machine. You also made the point about servicing and this is something you need addressed if you are to consider switching to another vendor. I also understand you need dual voltage and compatibility with your other equipment. Let me suggest Widget 405. This is the smallest dual-voltage machine we make and it will fit seamlessly into your existing line. Since we support this equipment with a two-year warranty on parts and labor with a 24-hour call out service for our technicians, you will not be facing any of the problems you have had in the past.” 

Sensible questions involve the client in the sales interaction, create a dialogue and provide information that help the salesperson offer the most appropriate product to the client. Something that a brochure cannot and will not do!

Terence A. Hockenhull is a long-term resident of the Philippines. He is an accomplished sales consultant who currently holds an executive sales position with an Italian geotechnical company.