I once read of an expedition to find hidden treasures in the Middle East. Rumour had it that wealth beyond compare had been buried in caves by ancient people who had been trying to escape war-mongering looters.
The surveys carried out had revealed there were indeed treasures to be found beneath the surface of the ground in the caves that had been the subject of their investigations.
Sure enough, just days into the search, many treasures were unearthed and the team were ecstatic at their findings. Gold, jewels and silver were taken away, examined, dated, valued and put on display at various museums. The findings were seen as a treasure trove from the past.
Years later, other excavators decided to re-examine the caves. This particular team felt that not all the treasure had been uncovered. They felt there may well have been more hidden deeper in the caves, and that the original teams had stopped digging too early when they found the treasures.
Sure enough, after digging only a relatively few feet further down, this new team uncovered more valuable treasures, valued even more than the original find.
If the first team had only continued digging, they would also have found these buried treasures. They were literally just a few feet from finding even more value than they had originally uncovered.
When I read this, it reminded me that the best salespeople are able to uncover and find out much valuable information about a prospect if only they were to dig deeper. We can do this by recognising that the quality of our questions will determine the quality of the information we obtain.
We can catagorise questions into three levels: Surface, shallow and deep.
If we seek for something at the surface, it won’t reveal much of what is hidden. Similarly, surface questions won’t uncover much detail.
Surface questions could include, for example, “How is business?” “Judging by the photos on your desk, I see you have two children, yes?” “How many salespeople do you have at the moment? “What kind of products sell best for you?”
You may need to start of with ‘surface’ enquiries, but they don’t reveal very much about the business or the way the person makes decisions. We need to dive a little deeper.
Shallow questions build on the information you have uncovered. They could include, for example, “How do today’s figures compare with last year’s?” “What further inroads into this market could you make if you were able to?” “How has the improving economy affected the way you market your products?”
These are slightly deeper questions and obtain more information. They could uncover more treasures as the prospect reveals more about their business and future plans. These ‘shallow’ level questions reveal whether you are able to assist the prospect in a more meaningful way.
These type of questions open the way to the level of questioning that reveals the real treasures…the depth of which will help you to present solutions that create opportunities for the prospect that maybe they hadn’t seen before. ‘Deep’ questions uncover information and build on previous data that may well take the discovery journey on a different path or deeper purposes.
Examples might include, “So with the increase in business you’ve seen in the last few months, what changes to your current business practices will help support the further growth you are expecting?”
“If the current trend continues, how do you see the departmental structure and set-up in the next few months?”
“ Could you describe the criteria you will be using to choose your future business partner, so you are certain that relationship will bring the desired results you have described?”
You’ll notice these questions dig deeper to get the prospect to open up about the future operations and allow you to formulate plans that will assist in their business development.
You then have the chance to build your future partnership with the prospect instead of it becoming a transactional-type relationship, built on shallow foundations with surface or shallow information.
So, think through in your call-preparation what information would help you get the most information possible from the prospect. Imagine you only had time to ask three questions. What would those questions be to get the best and most useful information possible? Those would then be the ‘deep’ questions that you could ask during the conversation.
Treasure could be buried deep in the ground, and it could take time and effort to uncover it. When you do, you may discover opportunities that wouldn’t have been available previously.
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One of the best qualities that we can develop in sales is the skill of asking questions. Being able to obtain information from prospects is a pre-requisite to providing answers and services to them.
When we ask salespeople what type of questions they ask of their prospects, they often reply with ‘open’ and ‘closed’ questions. These are the basic questions that a person can ask. But there are more ‘types’ of questions that will help you get deeper and more concise information. Here are a series of different questions you can ask that will get you quality answers.
What you’ll see is how many questions cross over each other, so some clarifying questions may also be open, focussed and reflecting as well. Some leading questions may be probing and clarifying. So the real point is not to think ‘what type of question should I ask?’ It’s ‘How can my quality of questions get the best out of the discussions I am having?’
Be aware of the way you can get the client to consider different options with the different format of questions, and you’ll find you get better quality answers from your prospects.
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Many of our programmes have exercises and activities that bring the best out of salespeople.
This is especially true when we run activities around the conversational quality of questioning techniques. Naturally, we as humans are inquisitive and want to find out information. Improving our questioning skills is one of the ways that we find information that will help us progress the sale.
But many times we find salespeople are more likely to make suggestions or give advice rather than dig deeper to identify rationale for specific ideas the prospect has.
We call this the difference between advocacy and inquiry, and it’s important that we know the difference and are able to consciously apply them at the right times.
Basically, the two terms are at either end of a communications continuum. At one end is the idea of ‘advocacy‘. This is where you give advice, make suggestions, tell your side of the story, direct or control the conversation. Your opinions or viewpoints are aired and the other person listens.
The other end has the idea of ‘inquiry’. This is where you are asking questions, making investigations, opening your mind to new ideas, following up on what the other person has said and identifying new ways of progressing. You listen intently to the other person, noting their views and ideas, without making judgement or counteracting with your opinions. You’re simply finding out information or digging deeper to gain more knowledge.
How many times have you been conversing with someone and then realised that they were only interested in their own opinion? Your viewpoint wasn’t relevant; it was simply a download of opinions or information from the other person, with no regard for your input or ideas.
How did that conversation make you feel? Sometimes, it’s good just to listen to what others have to say, especially if it’s interesting, absorbing and informative.
But oftentimes conversations like this are tiresome and frustrating. The other person is simply interested in letting you know what’s right and is not interested in changing or debating a viewpoint. This is the ‘advocacy’ position, where a person simply downloads information and is not swayed by any other opinion or fact.
Imagine if that was the stance you took in a prospect meeting. You simply regurgitated your product brochure, displaying your knowledge like a fountain gushing out flowing water, and your prospect was expected to act like a sponge, soaking up all you good stuff. What would the end result be?
The prospect would be far more knowledgeable about you and your products and services…but would that convince them to buy or make them feel yours was the best solution?
Not always. Taking the position of ‘inquiry’ opens up the discussion, making it more pertinent and applicable to the prospect. Inquiry increases the rapport between the two of you, highlighting needs and directing the conversation forward to a naturally conclusion, driven by the needs, wants and desires of the prospect.
Think about your next conversation with a prospect. How much of it has to revolve around you and your product, and how much has to concentrate on gaining facts, opinions and information?
Deciding on which end of the scale you should be in the ‘advocacy’ and ‘inquiry’ continuum is important, as it will determine whether you progress the sale through quality fact-finding, or lose the opportunity through forcing information when it’s not the right time.
Balance the two effectively and you create opportunities to advance the sale.
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Imagine you’re walking around the shops and an elderly man approaches you, asking you some questions.
You try to ignore him, but his questions are powerful and engaging. He makes you think a lot and you find yourself drawn into the conversation which very quickly brings out how you see a current situation. Although he never really takes a position, you find yourself questioning how you see that situation. As you end your conversation and leave the shopping area, the ideas his questions have planted are making your mind buzz with curiosity and intrigue.
This is exactly the impact that the Greek philosopher Socrates had on the crowds that listened to him. His philosophies and ideas had people gripped. Yet, his style was effective, not just because of his vast knowledge or wisdom, but because of his method of questioning; something from which we can learn some very insightful lessons.
Very few salespeople have heard of his form of questioning, so it would be useful to identify how some of his thoughts can be brought into the 21st century.
To understand why he is the farther of questioning, one needs to understand how he viewed the world. Socrates discovered that having a person question a current belief or view would cause them to reconsider that viewpoint or current belief system.
So, what exactly did he do that we could learn from today?
Well, he answered most questions that were asked of him with another question.
Then, he used questions to discover what another person’s values and beliefs were. This is the foundation of persuasion.
After that, he would frame questions to direct the thoughts of listeners in the way he wanted them to think, while they thought it was their ideas and thoughts
This was followed by questions that were framed to overcome resistance, something that we could do if faced with objections.
So, how can you use these ideas with modern-day buyers to help you build better relationships and gain more sales
Well, firstly, answering a question with a question sounds very simple in theory, although many can get the wrong idea about this.
It’s not just a case of rebounding the question back. If the prospect asks: “Can you tell me more about your after-sales service?”, replying with the question, “Why do you want to know more about that?” would probably antagonise and puzzle them and you would lose rapport.
No, the question has to be in congruence with the idea the other person is contemplating. For instance, the above question could be reflected back with something like, “Naturally, after-sales service is a really important area for you. What would you specifically like to know about it?”
What this does is help you get a very clear and precise picture of what the prospect wants to know, rather than just giving a generic answer about everything your services offer, which may not be what the prospect actually wants.
Secondly, Socrates used questions to discover values and beliefs of other people. You may find this difficult or strange, but it opens up the conversation in a way that other salespeople may not be able to do.
You can ask things like, “What makes you feel that way?”, “How did you get to that conclusion?”, “Can you expand a little on that?”
These questions help you did a little deeper and encourage the prospect open up that bit more
Socrates also framed questions so that he could take conversations along a certain direction. We can do this if we want to redirect the conversation, or if it’s going a little off track.
Questions like, “How do staff costs influence your decisions here? Do the current ways of working have to change much to gain the results you’re looking for?”
These framing questions give you control and encourage the prospect to think in the direction you want them to go.
Finally, there’s the idea of using questions to overcome resistance. Socrates used these types of questions when dealing with situations where information was being held back, or delicate issues were being discussed. The idea is that you make statements that you know is wrong, so the prospect has to correct you. It makes them highlight the main issues and reduces the resistance that may be stopping them from opening up.
Examples could include, “So, you’re using XYZ because of their pricing structures, is that correct?” (You know it’s incorrect, but you want to find out the real issues).
“I understand your staffing costs have gone up. Is this the biggest concern you have?” (You want to uncover the real concerns the prospect has).
“The discounts from your current suppliers…are these the best deals you were able to obtain?” (You know they got very little discount, but you want to ensure you find out their real buying motives).
This type of question means you have probably build up a great deal of rapport, so they are more willing to open up with the real reasons. Probably, if you had asked the question directly, you would have got a deflecting answer.
Socrates lived over 2500 years ago. His ideas and philosophies worked in many circumstances back then. Used appropriately, they can be used effectively today, and clients would not be aware that you are using ancient and highly effective questioning techniques.
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Many salespeople tell me that the greatest skill they can develop is that of excellent communications. And I would agree. Unless you are excelling at this most vital of skills, you risk missing many opportunities that exist out there.
However, most salespeople we train overestimate the quality of their communication skills, some by a vast amount. If I were to ask you how you would rate your listening and questioning skills out of ten, how many of you would say ‘minus two’?!
We think we are good at communicating because we get the sale and we have a bunch of customers who keep coming back to us. But what about the next step in communicating? Here’s my take on things: Salespeople with good listening skills will hear the issues their prospect has. Salespeople with good questioning skills will identify the problems causing those issues. Salespeople with both listening and questioning skills will be able to reiterate those problems and issues.
All good and fine so far. But let’s go further. Some of the best salespeople I’ve met have the ability to recognise the one compelling thing for which their prospect will invest money. You must be able to perceive the one thing that might not even be on the list, and this involves deeper listening and reading between the lines of what might be greater opportunities for the prospect than they had originally thought. It’s deeper than just being a salesperson, deeper even than being a consultant.
It’s partnering with the business in a way that creates opportunities for both parties, rather than just solving current problems. That prospect will spend money with your company to no longer feel overwhelmed with their whole list of issues because you will help them achieve things they couldn’t do with anyone else.
Can you imagine being in the prospect’s shoes when they see rewards they hadn’t seen before, see challenges lifted that they couldn’t see past? Can you identify those areas of concern that has been restricting their business opportunities? If you can, you show yourself as the kind of company and salesperson they cannot do their business without.
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