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Week 022 – Don’t Interrogate – Chapter 06

Questions are an important tool for successful sales pitches. But be careful: Not every question leads you to your goal. That is why I would like to raise your awareness on this issue. Are you familiar with situation questions? No? In that case I invite you to learn the fundamentals of professional questioning techniques.

In 1980 a large company established a new business field. In order to support the new branch, the best veteran sales professionals were brought over from the already existing business field. A few months later is was discovered that the same salespeople who had proved so successful in the past had brought only an average success to the new field. What happened?

To solve the problem, the company hired a consulting firm. Neil Rackham published the results of the investigation under the title “SPIN Selling” in 1988. Naturally, today things have changed. Nevertheless, the core of his observation is still relevant until today. He found out that questions can be categorized according to their objective. And the proportion of different question types used determines success. In other words: Sales people who ask a certain type of question enough times were more successful than those who opted for other types more often. Since this sounds really abstract you’ll find four salient categories below:

Situation questions are concerned with the customer’s current situation and inquire into verifiable facts.

Problem questions reveal problems and difficulties that a potential client wishes to remove.

Implication questions focus on the pressure to act that a customer feels, and reveal how important the solution to a given problem is.

Need-payoff questions establish what criteria must be met in order for the client to feel that she has found an acceptable solution.

Here you have an example from the IT field, where a software salesperson poses questions to a decision maker:

Salesperson: “How many customers do you have?”

Decision maker: “Around 4,000.”

S: “How many of those are supplied every month?”

DM: “About 1,500.”

S: “How many items is that per invoice?”

DM: “I’m not sure, I think fewer than five.”

S: “How many customers are supplied more than once per week or even per day?”

DM: “I’d say it must be around 50 to 80.”

S: “How often do you check the line of credit?”

DM: “Once a month, I think.”

S: “How many deliveries leave the warehouse every month?”

DM: “About 5,000.”

S: “How many different products do you have in stock?”

DM: “Around 10,000 are listed, with 80 percent of those in stock.”

S: “How often do you make an inventory?”

DM: “Twice a year.”

S: “What is your average inventory deficit?”

DM. “I don’t know that off-hand. What’s with the third degree?”

You may have noticed, these are not questions; this is an interrogation. Put a desk lamp next to the customer’s face and the atmosphere of persecution would be complete.

If you confine yourself to situation questions, you create a situation in which the client feels either bored because the answers are already known, or ashamed because there is no clear answer to your questions at the moment. Either way, the mood is uncomfortable and this is something you don’t need in a sales pitch.

Still, you need some facts in order to get an accurate picture of the customer’s situation. So how can you handle this? Have a look at the following ideas:

Conversation Techniques – Don’t Interrogate © Fotolia 2015 / fotogestoeber

Conversation Techniques – Don’t Interrogate © Fotolia 2015 / fotogestoeber

Idea One: It’s not only the decision maker you can talk to when you need pure facts. If you are in contact with the recommender or the influencer, you might also consult them for the facts.

Idea Two: You’ve established an initial contact with a decision maker and have set up a meeting for a discussion. However, you have no other contacts at that particular company, how do you get the relevant information?

You need a certain amount of preparation for this. Take a piece of paper and draw up a questionnaire that includes every possible item you need to know and put them in an appropriate order. Note down the answers you already know; this will prevent the decision maker from getting irritated if the question concerns information that is publicly available or something that was mentioned already in the initial contact.

Send this questionnaire together with a letter to the decision maker’s P.A.: “Dear Ms. (P.A.’s name), regarding the important meeting with (decision maker’s name) scheduled for (date) at (time), we would like to ensure that we are working on the basis of valid facts. To do this, we require some additional information. It should take no great effort to have the open questions on the attached form answered by your firm. It would more than suffice, if the facts requested were available at the time of the scheduled meeting. Having said this, it would significantly facilitate my preparation if you were to send me the facts one or two days prior to the meeting. Sincerely yours . . .”

It should be easy for the P.A. to provide you with the missing information, and it is effectively one of the P.A.’s tasks. From my experience I can tell, that this information will be given you four times out of five. Once you’re in a meeting with the decision maker, you can point to the questionnaire and say, “We can lead our discussion on the basis of these facts. Is there anything that you’d like to expand upon?” This will reveal a certain level of professionalism and what more could you ask for?

Next week we will discuss questions about the decision maker’s motives. After all, we need to figure out the problem he wants to solve, ideally with our help.

Best wishes,
Stephan Heinrich