There isn’t much better than asking your dream client a question to which they answer, “That’s a great question.” You may have had clients say those very words to you, but you may not know what made it a good question—or how you might achieve that outcome in the future. When you understand the meaning of “that’s a great question,” you can repeat it.
Statements and Questions
In sales, we spend much time working on our talk tracks. It’s important work, mainly because you need to make your points clearly and crisply. While it makes sense to work on dialogue, improving it and delivering it effectively with confidence (it is just as important to know what to say and how to say it), you aren’t likely to spend nearly as much time on what you might call “power questions.”
Here is a statement: “We’ve been in business for 65 years, we have over 100 locations in the United States, and we work with some of the best, most recognized companies anywhere.” That statement doesn’t do much for you. There are many salespeople who believe that is the right place to start a conversation (In Eat Their Lunch: Winning Customers Away From Your Competition, I call this kind of approach “entering from the left,” as it relies on external proof that you belong in the room).
Here is a better statement: “One of the ways our model is different from others is that we invest more in the three areas that have the largest impact on the overall results. The price is a little higher, but if you need the results, it is almost always worth it to invest. It lowers your overall costs.” It’s better, even if it’s not perfect. It starts a conversation around results and different choices.
Here is a question: “What changes have you made to your customer experience strategy over the last twelve months, and what changes do you believe you might make in the next twelve months?” Let’s unpack the assumptions in this question. First, it presumes you contact has made changes over the twelve months. Second, it suggests that they should have already decided what they need to do in the future.
While the second statement may be useful and practical, the question may be better and even more effective.
Your Real Outcome
You want to create value early in the sales process (read this post to see what I mean when I say create value). While there are many ways of creating value, helping your client learn something they don’t know and that may benefit them is useful. You are teaching them how to look at their problem, think about their choices, and why they might make one choice instead of another. Let’s refer to these ideas as “being a consultative salesperson,” even though there are other attributes and skills that belong to that idea.
If you were to boil the statement “that’s a great question” down to its essence, what you would find is that you helped your client discover something about themselves. Let’s return to the question about the changes the client made in the not-too-distant past and is preparing to make in the rapidly-approaching future. If the client hasn’t made any real changes, you have exposed a gap. The same is true if they have not yet decided to do something different in the future. You may also have exposed the fact that they aren’t aware of what they might have done and what they should be doing.
Your bedside manners matter here. If you have a hint of condescension, you can cause people to feel as if they have to defend themselves, in which case, you have achieved precisely the opposite of what you are going for here. You want an answer that sounds like, “That’s a great question. We’ve made a few little changes, but nothing that has moved the needle.”
Questions That Expose a Gap
Your statements don’t often create a gap, even when they are as direct as something like: “Your results are half of what you should be getting.” Those words can cause resistance to you and your ideas, and they can also create incredulity, even when your prospect should be doing double what they are now.
Why would you ask “So, what’s keeping you up at night,” when you have better and more compelling questions you can ask? There is no reason to ask, “What do you wish your existing supplier did differently,” a question that lacks any sense of subtlety. If you are going to be that direct, why not start with, “What’s it going to take to get your business?”
Indirect questions that start at Level 4 (strategic outcomes) tend to rise to the level of “that’s a great question.” Questions like, “What do you believe to be the factors that most contribute to the challenges you are facing now, and what prevents you from doing something about them?” There is a value in exposing and discussing the factors that prevent them from the results they need. Even though your contacts have an awareness of these factors, the question provides a context in which to hang those factors. It also begins a conversation about what needs to change and why.
A Few Words About Values-based Questions
Some questions carry more weight than others. Questions about values tend to be dense. These kinds of questions get to identity, culture, the soft stuff that matters most to producing results. A question like, “It sounds like you are concerned about your team. What impact is it having on them, and what do they need from us should you decide to work with us in the future?”
Like anything you say or ask, your delivery matters. If you are not other-oriented and sincere, these types of questions are dangerous in your hands.
If you want to be more compelling, start by asking questions that help your clients discover something they would not have discovered without your help.
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Filed under: Sales