Entries Tagged 'Fact Finding' ↓

Ask open ended questions

open-ended-questionsWe often preach how important it is to “ask open ended questions”.  I recently realized, however, that many don’t really know what is meant by this sage sales advice – so we’re going to set the record straight right now.

Open ended questions simply refer to questions that can’t be answered with a single word such as yes or no.

An example open ended question would be “How does your purchasing process work here?”

An example closed question would be “Do we have everyone at this meeting that we should have?”

Why do we preach this so hard?  Well, it ties in with another important sales lesson to listen ten times more than you talk.  You may say ten words in a closed question that your prospect answers in a single word – you now have a deep deficit in your talking to listening ratio.

After asking your open ended question, just sit there and listen, no matter how hard it is.  Let them fully answer the question and then either just sit there in awkward silence until they talk more or simply probe deeper “I think I get what you’re saying, can you give me an example?”  “Where does the process typically bog down?” and so forth.

A final bit of advice, don’t sit there and think about your next question while your prospect is answering you.  Listen and live in the moment and just make sure that you fully understand everything you need to in order to put your self in your customer’s shoes – just make sure you take off yours first!

Let’s talk about money

Money talk in salesWho wants to talk about money?  Your prospects, that’s who.  That’s the first thing that comes to their mind in a sales call.  The whole way through your wonderfully engineered PowerPoint pitch, all they’re thinking is: “How much is this going to cost us?”

If you wait for them to bring up the topic, you might have already lost.  Bring it up on your terms and with your point of reference.

Almost universally, you’re product/service is going to either make them more money or save them money.  Decide what that is before your sales call and do one of the following to shake things up a bit and get yourself noticed.

Right off the bat before plugging in your overstuffed laptop or passing out your shiny brochures, throw one of these out:

If you MAKE them money: “I was hoping to start off with an example of what we do and a quick discussion to get us all on the same page this morning.  We implemented our widget to StarCompany’s assembly line three months ago and they’ve already earned back 3 times their investment.  [then add 2-3 sentences saying what you technically did].  Can we talk about if there are any parallel processes like that here?”

If you SAVE them money: “I was hoping to start off with an example of what we do and a quick discussion to get us all on the same page this morning.  We implemented our widget to StarCompany’s assembly line three months ago and their rejection rate has dropped 78%.  This is saving them about $30,000 per month. [add your technical description here]  Can we talk about if there are any parallel processes like that here?”

This is getting long, and I’ve gotten feedback to keep the posts short, so I’ll save some actual sales call stories for a later date.

Beware of busy work

Sales busy workAs we talked about in the previous time management post, managing your sales time is of paramount importance to keeping your sales funnel loaded. Let me explain this post with a personal example. I had a inside salesman working for me, let’s call him Steve. Steve was always at his desk working – filing, reading, stapling, Web surfing – you name it, he was doing it.

He made me look like I was lazy.

To make a too long story shorter, this went on and on and very little actual sales fell through his sales funnel, but he was always “close to closing”. It got to the point where I literally sat right beside him for an entire day to observe his sales tactics. And all he did was busy work.

For example, if he was supposed to call on someone, he would spend all his time printing out Web stories about them and highlighting meaningless passages – in face he showed me a collection of binders filled with this “intelligence”. I forced him to stop and we made a quick cold call to the company, got an appointment and he was on his way.

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out with Steve and I had to let him go, but there is a year’s worth of posts that will come out of my working with him – as well as some good lessons for me on when to let people go.

Bottom line: Don’t get sucked into thinking that just because you are doing something, that it’s counts as selling – a single call is worth more than a dozen reams of printed paper of contact information.

Example sales call

Sales callFor this example, let’s use an engineer salesman pitching a new stronger and lighter material than steel and he is focusing on landing a major aerospace account to kick the business off. The sections follow the list of questions from the post “Ask the right sales questions“.

Sales questions to ask yourself

  • Why would they ever accept a call from me?
    They are interested in using lighter materials to save weight in the airframes. Less weight means less fuel costs and more payload capacity.
  • Is my solution the best choice for them?
    Don’t know for sure at this point, but it certainly seems so.
  • Do I have high intent here?
    Absolutely, we could both benefit if this works out.

Sales questions to ask your prospect after cold call but before sit down meeting

Me: Hi Sally, I was hoping that you’d have a few minutes to talk about our upcoming meeting. I just want to make sure that I cover some of the high-level topics that you’re expecting me to cover. So what would be say the three key topics that you want to make sure I cover?

Prospect: Well, we really want to see property data showing how your material stacks up against what we’re currently using. Another important point would be price, we have to justify any cost increases with corporate, so we need to give them a heads up early in the process. Thirdly would be your ability to keep up with our production needs.

Me: Fantastic, you mention mechanical data, what properties most interest you and do you have any minimum values.

Prospect: Our main concern is tensile strength and low cycle fatigue properties and the minimum values are X and X.

Me: OK, sounds good so far, you also mentioned a cost justification – I’d like to start providing you with that information right from the start. Can you tell me a little about how you measure costs and what they typically are?

Prospect: We say that we only care about life cycle costs, but the initial purchase price is what really drives our purchasing decision.

Me: Hmm, I doubt that we’ll be competitive when the initial purchase price is the main purchase discriminator. Is there someone in your organization that we could invite to this meeting that could help explain how we could better position our life cycle cost advantages.

Prospect: I’ll ask our CFO to sit in.

Me: Alright, you also mentioned a concern about our production capacity. Valid concern. Do you have a feel for what your annual demand would be?

Prospect: We use about 10-tons of material and that should stay steady for at least the next five years.

Me: Well, as you know we’re a small company, but I think I’ll be able to adequately convince you that we won’t let you down when delivery time comes. Perhaps later in this process you and your team could stop in for a tour of our facility.

Me: I don’t want to take up much more of your time. Is there anything you think I should have asked you or anything else that you’d like me to prepare before our meeting?

Prospect: No, I think we’ve pretty much covered everything.

Again, I could go on and on with this example, but I think the main point should get across. You are feeding off of your prospect’s previous answers to fuel your follow up questions. Your goal is to understand their technical and business issues at least as well as they do.

Bad sales question advice

Used car salesmanIn “Ask the right sales questions“, we talked about the plethora of advice on the Internet for asking sales questions. Below are the top few Google results for “sales questions”. What a bunch of garbage – I’ll follow each Google result (in quotes) with a note on why I have such a problem with these prevalent sales questions.

  • “Ask open ended questions”
    • No kidding. What kind of sales advice is this? How could you use this in an actual sales call? You couldn’t.
  • “You need to ask questions to qualify your prospects”
    • Tempting to again say no kidding. But much of my teaching is to ask questions to disqualify your prospects, not qualify them. They need to be as worthy for your business as you need to be for theirs.
  • “Don’t ask questions unless you know the answer”
    • We’re salespeople not lawyers. And why would we bother asking questions if we already know the answers? Are those even questions then?
  • “A good question from your salespeople helps focus and shape the direction in which your customer’s mind works”
    • This one disgusts me so much that I don’t know where to start. If you have a mentor, trainer, boss, or co-worker that subscribes to this sales theory of manipulating customers into buying your product, get far away fast. This one really goes directly against everything I believe in – having high intent and always having your customer’s best interest at heart.

It is my sincere hope that through the posts and pages in this blog that the above sales myths are debunked and you begin to learn to hold your head high and be proud that you are a salesperson. In return you’ll always have a full and healthy sales funnel.

Ask the Right Sales Questions

In the “Calculating What Your Product or Service is Worth” article, we talk about how important it is to get a keen understanding of what your prospect, and their internal buying team, really thinks that your product or service is worth.

How do you actually get this understanding?
By asking the right questions in an open and honest format.

It is your duty to get to the heart of your client’s needs and wants, and knowing the difference between needs and wants. This article assumes that you’ve read and followed the article titled “Getting the Initial Sales Appointment” in that these sets of questions take place either during or after your initial meeting – not during a cold call.

Uncovering facts in the sales process

There are lots of books and papers out there offering suggestions for discovery questions. “Ask open ended questions”, “You need to ask questions to qualify your prospects”, and “Don’t ask questions unless you know the answer” were the top few results on a recent Google search. I thought I was actually on to something with number four when it started out saying “good sales questions is the single most powerful sales tool”, sounds good, let’s see what else they say; “A good question from your salespeople helps focus and shape the direction in which your customer’s mind works.”

If I wasn’t sure that I had a duty to write this series of article’s before I got to this point, I’m certainly sure now.

There isn’t much of anything out there giving you solid, concrete advice and examples of what questions to ask and when to ask them.

Questions and When to Ask Them

I think the best way to give truly meaningful content here is to list sample questions for the various phases of the sales process and then provide detailed examples in the accompanying article and future posts. I originally wrote this section with the format of a sample question followed by my philosophy for asking that question, and I was up over twenty pages of great information that no one would ever read. So I trimmed my philosophies down to a few words in brackets after some of the questions.

It’s easy to fill page after page with questions for each of the below timing points. In fact, it’s a piece of cake. What’s far more difficult, but immensely more useful, is to boil all those questions down into a few in each category that you can actually remember and use in practice.

Questions to ask yourself

  • Why would they ever accept a call from me? [figure out your in]
  • Do I truly feel that my solution is the best choice for them? [if not, recommend a better choice]
  • Am I moving forward with high intent and my customer’s best interest at heart, or am I succumbing to quarterly numbers pressure?

Questions to ask your prospect before your first meeting

  • What are the key topics that I could hit on to make certain that this is a beneficial meeting for you?
  • Will there be anyone else in the meeting? [depending on the complexity of your sale, you could push here to have all the necessary people in the first meeting, I like to have them in the second meeting so I have more background information, see below]
  • I typically just sit and have an open conversation, but I can prepare a formal presentation if you would prefer that?
  • What could happen at this meeting that would make you think “wow that was a fantastic meeting?” [this question is a little hokey, but it could give you some real insight – I don’t use it all the time]

Taking your prospect’s temperature questions

All you need to do is have a conversation with your customer and discover together the best solution for them going forward. If it’s you, fantastic. If it’s not, that’s ok too; you’ll be at the top of the list the next time a problem comes down the pike.

  • Before we get too buried in detail, do you mind if I ask about your history with the company? [you’re looking to sure up buying power here and political power]
  • Rather than going into our services and solutions, I’d love to start off with you actually explaining the current situation if that’s ok? [here they will tell you something like, “well, we make this part with 14 other parts and the welding costs are out of control” – make sure you know the real underlying issues before leaving this bullet, use the general probing questions below]
  • Can you please explain your current solution to this issue?
  • And what concerns do you have with the current way business is done?
  • If you could change one thing about the current solution what would it be? [this and the two previous questions will uncover who your entrenched competition is and how you can position yourself to be better]
  • Are you looking at any other solutions other than us? May I ask what type of solution those are?
  • Do you have a feel for the real life cycle costs of {current solution}? [Here is where you start to get a financial understanding of your competition and where you need to be in order to compete]
  • As we go along here today, I’ll be taking notes to prepare a life cycle cost analysis of what we can provide. Is that something you could go over with me, assuming we reach a decision that this makes sense to move forward? [wow, we now have their pressing problem, how they currently solve it, where their current solution fails, and an idea on how to be cost competitive – it’s almost like insider information, and you weren’t sneaky or slimy about getting it]

Moving forward questions

At this point in the game you have a pretty good feeling that your solution is the best choice for your prospect and you need to understand how their company works so you don’t waste your precious time and energy on non-productive tasks.

  • Well Ms. Prospect, from my side, it looks like we might have a workable and economical solution for you, would you agree with that?
    • [if yes] Great, then do you mind if we talk a bit about your business process and how we would fit in?
    • [if no] Ok, can you please help me understand where you think our solution is lacking?
  • How soon would you be looking to implement a change such as what we’re suggesting?
  • OK, could you give me a sense of what type of milestones you’d like to reach during the implementation phase? [this gives you insight into how to break up your eventual quotation to them]
  • Would you consider this a priority issue and do you think others in the evaluation/buying process would evaluate it likewise? [need to know who all the players are]
    • OK, who are all the others that would be in on this decision? [push them here, did they think of legal, accounting, maintenance, etc.]
    • Could you help me sketch out an organization chart so that I can best understand what this process will entail?
    • Who do you think we should bring in from this list for the next detailed meeting?
  • Could you walk me through a typical evaluation and procurement cycle for something like this? [make sure that the names mentioned here coincide with the names gathered from the previous questions]
  • What do you see as your greatest risk and benefit with solving your current problem?
  • And what do you see as your company’s greatest risk and benefit?

General probing questions

These questions can and should be used during all phases of questioning to help you dig deeper and gain a better understanding of your customer’s needs. If asked in a genuine and sincere manner, they will not be offensive or pushy.

  • I think that this is a key issue here, can you help me understand this a little better?
  • What exactly do you mean by that?
  • Do you mind if I give you my understanding of {that issue} to make sure that we’re on the same page?
  • As you may know Mr. Prospect, I’m an engineer by training, one of our lean mantras is to ask five ‘why’ questions when we are dealing with a key issue. I feel that X is a key issue here today and would like to ask a few why questions about it. [literally just ask why, why, why 5 times to get to a root cause]
  • Can you give me an example of that?
    • I see, would it be possible to have another example?

Questions to ask on a continuous basis

These are questions that you need to keep track of at all times and double check answers from various people with each other to make sure that you’re getting the whole story. People won’t normally lie to you (well buyers might), but more often than not, some folks just don’t know exactly how things work in their own company so you have to put the puzzle together for them.

  • Would you agree that we’re at step X in your evaluation and procurement process?
  • Has anything changed in the buying process that I should know about?
  • Anything I should have asked, but haven’t?

Account maintenance questions
As I like to preach, don’t take this section for granted – stay in touch with your current customers. They’re your best prospects for future business.

  • Was everything delivered/installed/reported to your satisfaction? [right after delivered]
  • How is everything working out? [after installation or enough time has elapsed to implement your recommendations]
  • Is there anything that you wish we would have done differently?
  • We’re putting together case studies to showcase some of our projects. Would you be interested in participating in a case study with us?
  • Do you think this solution could transfer across into your other divisions? [start churning new business only after your initial solution is deemed successful]
  • Are there any other areas in your business that you could see our technology being valuable? [keep churning]