Smart questions

    Steve Jessop
    By Steve Jessop

    Smart questions and what under-pins them

    By Steve Jessop

    The first hand experience

    I recently accompanied one of our client’s Account Managers (“one of our best guys – great at managing relationships”, according to the Sales Director) on his first visit to a client just inherited from a departing colleague.  Our client has one of the most instantly recognisable brands in its sector and the customer in this instance was a huge U.S. services business. We were surprised to hear that our key contact was shortly to be leaving the company and we were joined by the manager due to replace him. We were also joined by the Procurement Manager. It looked interesting to me. A new Account Manager and three of his customer’s contacts in a room with very different agendas. A good opportunity you might think?  Investigate the agendas. Find out what they think – how they see things -- and position himself as the person to move things forward positively with the right solutions……. Unfortunately that wasn’t what happened….. What actually happened during a 2 hour meeting was:

    • He spent ¾ of his time talking to the current contact
    • He almost completely ignored the heir-apparent
    • He ‘talked over’ people much of the time – especially the Procurement Manager who was dying to have his say and flex his muscles
    • Most of all, in over 2 hours, he asked four questions – and three of those were ‘closed’ questions.

    It was amazing that I had enamel left on my teeth after that meeting…!!

    The problem

    The plain fact is that there are too many people out there (and a lot of them are salespeople) who spend most of their lives in a ‘comfort zone’ talking about their products and services to people who may / may not understand them. The key gap is that the person on the ground doesn’t get to  understand his / her customer’s business and therefore cannot connect the services and products to the customer’s business needs.


    The real world effect…


    In different, more buoyant, times, with proven products to call upon, and customers with big budgets to spend, eye-catching sums of money have been earned by people who have been riding the crest of the wave and taking orders. But ‘the wave’ looks a little different now doesn’t it…. ? The business people (those we might call ‘budget-setters’ as opposed to ‘budget-spenders’) insist on seeing the proof of where and how the products will deliver a real return on investment for their business before they will consider parting with their cash. The inevitable conclusion is therefore: no demonstrable return on investment and no sale…

    • To provide the highly necessary proof meaningfully we must understand, intimately, where and how our product delivers business value for our customer.
    • We will not get to this understanding without delving deeply into the quantifiable needs and wants of our customer. (‘Needs’ are logically-based; ‘wants’ are emotionally-based. Some more on this below.)

    We must therefore get altogether smarter with our questions.


    “The greatest enemy of communication is the illusion of it.” – Pierre Martineau

    Preparation. (Avoiding the ‘waste of space’ syndrome)

    It seems pretty straightforward really, bordering on the bland even -- take an interest in your customer’s business.  Our own niche is the business-to-business sector, and we consistently find that our clients’ people know little more than the obvious headline stuff about their customers. In the example above you will, I’m sure, have spotted that the Account Manager who is “great at managing relationships” knew nothing about his key contact’s imminent departure until we pitched up on the doorstep. A little bit of advance communication prior to the visit would surely have picked that fact up…?

    Frankly, if you are not interested – (really, genuinely, interested -- not just lip-service), in your customer’s business what ARE you doing in there?  You’re a waste of space. If you aspire to be more than a waste of space, some ‘starter-for-ten’ examples of customer-related issues you might want to ponder on are these:

    • What does your customer’s business really look like today? (E.g. Size. Market position. Profitability. Business unit structure.)
    • What do they sell? (Not just headline products and services, but value propositions too)
    • Who are their competitors? Where and how are they a threat to your customer?
    • Who and what are the influencers and sources of pressure within their industry?
    • How has your customer’s business grown? (In a numerical sense – but also in an organic and / or acquisitive sense)
    • What are their business plans for the future?

    Not comfortable with these types of questions? Then either:

    • Get comfortable with them quickly – or –
    • Get another job !!

    Preparing to sell – our key areas of focus

    Much of this still amounts to taking an interest in your customer – but it’s ‘sharper-ended’ now. Essentially, with the assistance of the information gained above, we need, in particular, to think carefully about:

    • What we are likely to be able to deliver for our customer and where it will add real business value for them
    • What information we need -- i.e. what we must investigate to isolate the customer’s quantifiable needs and wants for our deliverables..
    • Getting to understand the customer’s ‘how’ and ‘whom’ in relation to making a buying decision which favours us.

    Questions in relation to your Sales Propositions

    “Judge a man by his questions, not by his answers” – Voltaire

    The key differentiated elements of your services and products need to be considered and captured in relation to how they could be advantageous to different types of decision-influencer within the customer’s organisation, as well as who you will be, or are likely to be, competing with. With some relevant proofs prepared to substantiate your case later on, questions should be prepared which allow you to gradually and conversationally explore where the needs and wants might be for your deliverables, and where the cost / pain / inconvenience / wasted time / personal preference / competitive pressure etc, etc, is. When presenting your solution later in the cycle you will of course reinforce how you will address these problems and pressures with the proofs.

    Each of the above should be grouped together . i.e:

    1. The features and advantages of your service / product which you intend to identify needs & wants for
    2. The questions you will ask to identify the needs & wants for these, which will ultimately bring out the benefits.

    We run pretty intensive workshops on this subject, sometimes of several days’ duration, so I can’t do justice to the detail in a short article – but here are a couple of tips:

    • Within each of the ‘groupings’ ensure that the early questions are quite broad and open and only loosely connected with the subject matter. (“How is the business performing?”) Use the more searching, leading questions only when you have plenty of information, gained from the answers to the broad question/s, to use (“That’s interesting, what has to happen in a technology sense to support the business? “.. What kinds of demands is that putting on you and your people…?)
    • Put the ‘groupings’ in some kind of logical sequence – although you may need to be flexible and move them around according to how the conversation progresses and the information you glean.

    Why people buy

    We often use the ‘iceberg’ analogy when considering why the customer actually buys. At the tip of the iceberg, above the water, are the logically-based needs. These are generally openly declared. To be a  contender for the business you must be able to satisfy them. Typically, needs include issues such as timescales, budgets, resource capability and references. They are important of course, but you can often respond to them via the fax machine! The bulk of the iceberg is under the surface and this is where the emotionally-based wants are submerged. These are not always obvious, very often not dumped in your lap, and thus usually much harder to identify – but they are invariably very big drivers in buying decisions. If we are serious about selling a meaningful solution we must understand them, and the solution we ultimately present must reflect them one way or another. Examples, from a very long list of wants, include: kudos (being made a hero within the organisation); ego; company politics; ‘not invented here’ (i.e. his / her idea); security / insecurity; control; the leading edge ‘pioneer’ (i.e. the person who wants to be seen as the innovator), and, personal chemistry.

    What are you really selling?

    “What we sell is the ability for a 43 year-old accountant to dress in black leather, ride through small towns, and have people be afraid of him.” – Harley-Davidson Executive.

    Our knowledge of the fact that emotion has a lot to do with why our customer buys ought to get us thinking more about what it is that we are really selling. In an era of increasing commoditisation, people are buying-into products which have what you could call ‘emotional appeal’. In an everyday sense, continental mineral waters are an example of this. The premium many of us will pay for ‘free range’ eggs is another. Examples of emotional appeal themes might be: control; change; freedom, recognition, and care.

    An example of the ‘control’ theme is a mobile phone network providing the means to control our life. It could be said that people buy ‘North Face’ clothing to identify with those pioneers climbing Mount Everest (freedom). The purchase of free range eggs is a great example of ‘care’ as emotional appeal.

    The key issue for us in sales terms is to get a fix on where we can deliver most value for our customer and then consider the questions we must ask to establish the real business value of our proposition.

    Solutions and problems

    Revelation of the day: we just love talking about our solution don’t we? After all, it’s what we know. It’s where we’re comfortable. It’s much easier to prattle on about how wonderful our solution is than to appear ‘impolite’ by asking probing, incisive questions about the customer and his business  (to identify important issues which our solution is supposed to address!) Furthermore, while we’re ‘in the seat’, so to speak, the pressure is on us. The customer doesn’t have to acknowledge too many gaps and problems -- he can just sit back and watch the show…!!

    Once the preparation is complete,  your ability to provide a solution is only as good as your ability to identify the problem. And it often takes courage to ask the questions, which identify the problem.

    It has been said that reasons for making decisions sit under one of two headings:

    • Avoiding pain
    • Pursuing gain

    The motivation to get away from pain is normally more immediate than the motivation to pursue gain. The comments the customer makes will indicate which of these is appropriate. Those under the first heading will talk about problems and frustrations with varying degrees of emphasis. Those in the second camp will be more inclined to emphasise the result or outcome they seek.

    We should listen carefully to the answers to our questions to begin to understand the real nature of the problem. The ‘earthing’ of these questions was covered earlier in this article. More on in situ execution below. Beyond this, there are two pitfalls in particular to avoid:

    1. Responding too readily to the customer’s early request for a solution. (“Can you help us with xx?” What we need is xxxxx..”) This early request is not in itself a bad thing, but to provide the most meaningful solution we must work hard to understand the full extent of the problem and all that lies underneath it. (“I’m sure we can help you with xx, but it would help me to understand what results you think can be achieved…” It’s encouraging to hear your interest but what are you trying to achieve by…..?”)
    1. Based on early signs and comments – making the assumption that you know what the problem is (probably because you’ve heard it many times before) and launching off into a detailed description of what you can do for them.. What we’re inclined to call the ‘N.A.F.O.F.’ principle applies: ‘Never Assume Find Out First’

    Conspicuous by its absence -- the most common missing link

    In a word it is quantification. We have found that too few salespeople are able and willing to quantify the gaps which their questions flush out. Typically, the customer’s throw-away line is not challenged. Examples:

    “It has put us under enormous pressure here” [What kind of pressure? Who is he talking about? What was the impact of the pressure? What is it costing the business? What is it stopping them doing?]

    “It has soaked up a lot of resource”. [How much resource? How many man-days? What other resources? How costly? What pressures has this put on him and the business? What was the opportunity cost of this? Ideally what should it look like?]

    Tangible benefits will be required if you are to present a compelling value-added solution further downstream. Incisive questions which zero-in on quantifiable problems and pressures are the real key to this.

    You don’t know what the benefits are likely to be until you’ve had the discussion.

    Most of us were, correctly, taught very early on that we sell benefits – not features. (“The customer buys what it can do for him, not what it is” – I can still hear my first sales manager saying it!) Too many people however confuse benefits with advantages. Keep in mind that the feature and its advantage will only become beneficial when the customer perceives how it will meet his need – and you will only ascertain this from your questions. Thus when preparing your Sales Propositions you will be analysing your likely deliverables but not benefits – these will only become apparent to you and the customer when you are asking questions and he is answering them. To pick a simple example: the fountain pen has a clip on it [feature] -- which allows it to be fastened onto shirt or jacket pockets [advantage] – this will not be of benefit to me because I don’t keep pens in my jacket and I don’t wear shirts with pockets on the front…..

    ‘Where the rubber hits the road’

    Here are some key interpersonal considerations when you are asking questions of your customer.

    Earning trust

    I recently saw a great turn of phrase: the ‘Trust Alarm’. It is based on a place on the brain stem called the amygdala which is the brain’s survival mechanism . Quite literally, when the question arrives, the amygdala helps to decide whether or not it’s safe! The question is only routed further to the part of the brain which thinks and feels if the ‘Trust Alarm’ believes the question to be in the customer’s best interests. In the early stages of the meeting in particular, we must ensure that our customer understands the purpose of our questions and, especially, why he should answer them.

    …. hence -- the ‘motivator

    We use this word to describe how we should give the customer a reason why it is in his interests to answer the questions we are about to ask. Two examples:

    1. Range of services. “We have a wide range of services. To ensure that, ultimately, I present what is likely to be most relevant to you it would be helpful if I could ask you some questions to better understand your business position…”
    2. Time: “We have just established that we have an hour and a half for this discussion. To ensure that we use the time effectively, and, that we get at the issues which are critical for you, can I ask a few questions…?”

    Listen, make notes and summarise en route

    ‘How to listen’ ought to be a subject taught in schools. Actively listen as if your life depends on it. In a way it does! Listen to what your customer says, how he says it and what lies underneath what is said. Don’t be afraid to challenge what doesn’t add up or what you sense might block progress further downstream.

    Unless you have a photographic memory, don’t be shy about making notes. It shows interest and ensures that you can summarise accurately en route. And, on the subject of summarising, you almost can’t summarise too often. It demonstrates understanding and the fact that you’ve been listening, and, unless you are hideously and consistently off track, allows the customer to occasionally re-interpret on your behalf without any loss of face on your part. A comprehensive summary of all of your customer’s needs and wants should precede the presentation of your solution. Do not progress to ‘presentation mode’ until the customer has confirmed that your summary is accurate.

    In my view, selling is too often a most misunderstood and under-valued profession. Whether or not we choose to acknowledge it, most of us sell for much of the time, inside and outside of the working environment regardless of the ‘badge’ we wear. As you can see, the preparation and execution of good quality questions is central to effective selling.