|Question Based Selling doe required individual salespeople and entire sales teams to understand the logic between the logic you will use going forward, versus much of the outdated training material that has plagued traditional sales approaches for the last 30+ years.
Following a ‘live’ training, salespeople often say to me, “Wow, Tom, it’s amazing that such small adjustments can produce such a huge impact with regard to how customers perceive our products.”
Meanwhile, sales managers often ask me, “What advice can you give us on how to implement Question Based Selling and make it part of our culture, so the methodology becomes second nature to our salespeople?”
Thus, I created a new section on our website called Implementation Tips. My intent was to create a virtual repository of specific QBS techniques that sellers can use to get the “creative juices” flowing, in addition to reinforcing key QBS concepts.
If you have a specific tip request, I invite you to enter a comment and I will respond. Also, I invite you to subscribe to our RSS Feed, and/or bookmark this page, as I plan to grow this data bank multiple times per week, or at a bare minimum, adding content on every flight.
Salespeople tend to listen with ‘happy ears,’ hoping to get some indication that they are making progress within their opportunities, and that they are heading in the right direction. As a result, sellers tend to ask “hopeful” questions like:
“Mr. Customer, does your boss like our proposal?”
“Would next Tuesday work for a conference call?
“Are we still in good shape to wrap this deal up by the end of the week?
Unfortunately, asking hope-filled questions tend to yield less information that also tends to be less accurate than the alternative. In short, we live in a culture where it’s easier to sidestep the truth, or event tell a little fib than it is to share information that is different than they obviously wouldn’t want to hear.
In Question Based Selling, we leverage a strategy called neutralizing the Disposition of your questions. It’s uncanny, but if you are If you are open and willing to invite good news and bad news, instead of just thinking about your own goals, you stand to receive exponentially more (and more accurate) information about the status of the opportunity.
Therefore, it’s much more productive to invite complete information by asking questions like:
“Mr. Customer, does your boss have questions or see any problems in our proposal?”
“Would Tuesday work for a conference call, or is that too soon to get all the key people together?
“Are we still in good shape to wrap this deal up by the end of the week, or do you think it could stall once it hits the CFO’s desk?
Critics of this could argue that it gives the customer an “out.” But I believe most customers know that they don’t have to buy from you. Therefore, I will gladly trade all of the “outs” customers don’t know they have for the volumes of accurate information I receive in return.
At the risk of overstating the obvious, let’s suppose you enjoyed cooking and you wanted to make a delicious cake. Then, you would need a good recipe. A bad recipe would likely produce an unsatisfactory result.
Be aware that a “recipe” actually consists of two component parts. The first part is an ingredients list, right? I mean, to bake a decent cake, you need certain ingredients like eggs, flour, sugar, water, oil, and possibly rum. An effective recipe also requires a procedure for implementation. For example, if you take a cake out of the oven after baking 35 minutes at 375 degrees, and then you add the flour, you get a ‘dusty’ omelet.
What ingredients are necessary to be successful and consistent in sales? The Conversational Layering model is an important concept in Question Based Selling because it disrupts traditional thinking.
In traditional selling approaches, the first step is either relationship building or uncovering needs. These are important ingredients to be sure. However, in today’s increasingly competitive environment, you have to first earn the right to have a relationship and uncover needs.
Ironically, the two most important ingredients in the sales process, and prerequisites for being successful in sales, also happen to be the two least talked about subjects in sales training over the last thirty years—piquing curiosity & earning credibility.
I like to say it this way. If a prospect or customer is not the least bit curious about who you are or what you can do for them, and they don’t think you are a valuable resource, then chances are pretty slim that they would want to engage in a conversation about their needs or your offerings. Conversely, the extent to which you are able to induce curiosity and establish your own credibility will largely determine your effectiveness in sales.
Voice-mail and email are very effective communication tools. As such, your target list of prospects and customers is being inundated with voice-mails and email messages from your direct competitors, in addition to any number of other vendors who compete with you indirectly—for budget dollars.
The are only two reasons people respond to voice and email messages—obligation and curiosity. If your boss calls and leaves a message, you will likely return the call. If your largest customer calls, you will surely return their call as well, because that’s what you do when you have important customers, or a boss.
But, what about decision makers who don’t feel “obligated” to return cold calls from vendors? Besides obligation, the only other thing that causes people to return voice-mail messages or email is curiosity.
The challenge is, most voice-mails and email messages that get lobbed into potential decision makers do more to satisfy their curiosity than create it. Oops! As a result, the average return call rate on voice-mail has dropped below 5%, and the odds of getting replies to email can be just as bleak.
Sample messages of Curiosity Inducing Voice-mails:
i.) “Hi, George, this is Pat Wilkins calling from Dynamic Systems—I’m on the team that works with industrial accounts in Central Florida. I was on a conference call with one of our products managers last Wednesday afternoon just after lunch, and two issues came up that I thought might impact your current manufacturing platform, one of which is time sensitive. I wanted to be proactive and try to catch you in the office this afternoon. If you get a chance today, could you please call me back at (770) 123-4567? I should be here until around 5:30pm.”
ii) “Hi, Dale, this is Lane Patterson with HLM Corporation. I’m on the team that supports healthcare accounts for the Midwest region. I was hoping to catch you for a minute because we’ve had 13 new announcements in the last three and a half months, two of which I believe might impact your diagnostic assessments under the new legislation. If you get a chance today, could you please call me at (770) 123-4567?”
(iii) “Hi, Steve, this is Joe Tomlin calling from Templeton Partners. I manage a team that works with financial brokers in the tri-cities area. A note came across my desk yesterday morning that caught my eye regarding (insert something relevant) and I wanted to try and catch up with you today if possible. When you get a chance, could you please call me at (770) 123-4567?”
Key Point: If I sent 5 different voice-mails or email messages, they would have five different sets of words depending on what information I had about the account, my purpose for calling, and the objective of the call. But in every case, my intention would be to leave (or send) a purposeful message, that was specific and relevant. Do that in your business, and you can easily realize a 50%+ response rate, which represents a whopping 1000% increase over industry averages.
Sellers are encouraged to ask specific qualifying questions, most notably about decision makers, timeframe, and budget. A fine line exists between appropriately qualifying an opportunity and probing too invasively.
To minimize the risk of being shut down by a defensive prospect, and to maximize the quality of the information you receive, you simply precede your most delicate questions with a humbling disclaimer.
A humbling disclaimer creates a permission of sorts which makes it easy for the salesperson to ask, and also paves the way for the other person to be more receptive to the question. For example:
Salesperson: “Mr. Customer, I don’t want to overstep my boundaries and ask too many questions, but I would like to understand the big picture before recommending a solution. Do you mind if I ask a couple of specifics about how this project might impact your long-range growth plans?”
Other examples of humbling disclaimers include:
Salesperson: “I’m not sure the best way to ask, but would you mind if…”
“Without stepping on anyone’s toes, would it be okay if we…”
“I don’t want to step out of bounds, but would it be too forward to ask…”
Key Point: If you are respectful of someone else’s right to not to share with you, it’s amazing how much information you can get. Humility is a very attractive human quality, and one that people are naturally drawn toward. Thus, you can significantly enhance the value of the responses you receive by strategically preceding your most sensitive questions with a humbling disclaimer. Simply put, causing people to “want to” share more information with you gives you a strategic advantage over other sellers who are just out there probing for needs.
For decades, salespeople have been taught that open-ended questions are the best tools for causing prospects to “open up.” This thinking is incorrect. In fact, asking for too much too soon is one of the quickest ways to cause someone to shut down and not share anything with you.
Open-ended questions can be valuable conversational tools, but only after you have successfully piqued someone’s interest and have established some credibility. Hence, in QBS, a technique called Diagnostic Questions becomes the most effective way to kick off your needs development conversations.
Salesperson: “Can I ask you a couple specifics about _________?”
Customer: “Sure, go ahead.”
The first question is the easiest part. At some point in most sales conversations, there will be an opportunity for discovery. When these opportunities to ask questions arise, there is only one time in Question Based Selling where I recommend exact wording (above). Basically, you are asking permission. This is a low risk approach.
Once the customer grants you permission (99%), you ask a series of short-answer questions to understand specific facts about their current situation. Selling technology, for example, you might ask:
Salesperson: “How many servers do you currently have installed?”
“Supporting how many users?”
“In how many locations?”
“Do you manage the network in-house, or do you outsource?”
“How many engineers do you have on staff?”
“How many are Microsoft certified?”
Within a short time window (generally less than 60 seconds), this technique of Diagnostic Questions enables the strategic salesperson to kick off needs development conversations in a non-threatening manner, gather valuable information that guides the conversation, establish credibility as a valuable resource, and earn the right to transition into more depth.
From here, you can easily broaden the Scope to ask open-ended questions
Let me guess…your best sales presentations are the ones that end up being bi-directional, back-and-forth conversations between the salesperson and customer about how your product or service adds value…as opposed to a monologue pitch of features and benefits.
Some customers will jump into the conversation and actively participate. Too often, however, skeptical customers will sit back with their arms folded, essentially causing the presentation to fall flat.
A proactive salesperson can easily prevent this by using a question-based approach that brings customers into the discussion from the onset.
Salesperson: “Thanks everyone for taking time out of your busy schedules. In preparation for today’s meeting, I’ve had several conversations with Robert from Accounting and Lisa in Purchasing in an effort to understand your needs. Although I don’t yet know everything about your business, I have put together some ideas that I think will help.
Frankly, there are a couple of ways we can do this. One options is for me to simply deliver a generic sales presentation. We have lots of PowerPoint slides and I can talk for a long time. Or, we could put aside the standard ‘pitch,’ roll up our sleeves, and have a more specific conversation about how our solutions would impact your business.
Let me throw it out to the group…which would you rather do?”
If you can pause long enough to get an answer, in addition to choosing the more specific second option, they will also breathe a sigh of relief that they don’t have to sit through a standard sales presentation.
Constructive feedback can be invaluable. How else can you assess how you are progressing in the eyes of your customers, partners, colleagues, employees, or other constituents like family and friends. Asking for feedback is the hard part. Getting an accurate perspective is difficult because people don’t want to hurt your feelings.
The following three questions are guaranteed to generate valuable insight and feedback.
Q: “If you were me, would you be doing anything differently?”
Q: “Do you see a better way to handle this?”
Q: “If you were in my shoes, what approach would you take?”
Humbling oneself to the point where you are able to outwardly admit that you don’t have all the answers is the quickest way to cause other people to open up and share their perspective.
In the process of developing Question Based Selling, I have invested significant time and effort studying Conversational Dynamics, which refers to the science not just of ‘what’ you might choose to say, but also ‘how’ you choose to say it.
Once you have successfully piqued the customer’s interest and established your own credibility, using Diagnostic Questions, there are certain conversational devices we call broadening agents that will expand the scope of the dialogue. These include:
Q: “How familiar are you with _____________?”
Q: “To what extent is ____________ important to your project?”
Q: “What types of __________ are you focusing on the most?”
Essentially, the deliverer of the question is asking the other person to quantify, describe, or characterize their thoughts regarding a given issue or topic.
Key Point: Since you, as the salesperson, are ultimately in control of the questions you ask, how you formulate and deliver the question will likely how productively prospects and customers will choose to respond.
Tracking deals on the forecast is important part of any sales role. But, so is managing your sales effectiveness. Managing your selling effectiveness presents some challenges, because it tests your understanding of the softer skills and your ability to adjust to different selling scenarios. The payoff potential is huge!
Sample QBS Coaching Questions:
Q: What are you doing to leverage curiosity throughout the sales process?
Q: What’s your strategy for causing prospects to “want to” share information with someone they don’t yet know or trust?
Q: If the decision comes down to a virtual tie, what makes you different than your competition?
Q: How have you adjusted your sales approach given that prospects and customers are increasingly more standoffishness toward vendors?
Q: What are you doing to increase the prospect’s sense of urgency for moving forward?
For many years, our sales culture has put way too much emphasis on asking lots of questions, as opposed to giving salespeople a clear strategy for what causes prospective customers to “want to” share with someone they don’t yet know or trust.
It’s simple, really. If someone doesn’t want to share with you, it doesn’t matter what questions you ask. On the other hand, as they become more curious and begin to pereive greater value, facilitating productive conversation with potential customers is not difficult at all.