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Part 4: Question Tactics

Feb. 1, 2003
This final installment of a four-part series shows you how to use the rhetorical, overhead and leading question techniques.There are no surefire rules

This final installment of a four-part series shows you how to use the rhetorical, overhead and leading question techniques.

There are no surefire rules to mastering the game of selling, but skillful questioning techniques can help make you a winner.

Sure, the questions and answers come easy to Regis on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." For the rest of us, it takes some preparation and skill. If you want to be skilled at using questions effectively in sales, you need to do more than simply absorb the information in this series. So far, we''ve discussed a number of question types, offered examples and provided tips on how to use in them in selling situations. But, the true professional salesperson takes questioning beyond the level of skill to an art.

To develop this art requires more than perfecting questioning skills through practice. It requires understanding how and when to use different types of questions based on the particular demands of the selling situation and the unique needs and personality of the customer. It requires the habit of questioning - that is, developing the behavior of instinctively considering the questions you''ll ask as you prepare for and conduct the sales dialogue. It requires knowledge of the customer, so you recognize which type of question will most likely lead to the results you seek. And, it requires a strong sense of empathy, typified by a questioning attitude that drives you to understand the customer''s problems and needs.

Because every customer is unique and each sales call is different, there are no surefire rules for the application of questions in the selling situation. However, some rules of thumb will help you develop skill and perfect the art of questioning. These guidelines, combined with common sense, will help you avoid some of the common pitfalls associated with the use of questions.

Presale preparation. The first step toward developing the habit of questioning is taken before entering the actual selling situation. As you define goals for the sales call, consider how questions can help attain those goals. What information do you seek? What knowledge do you want to impart to the customer? What interests do you hope to arouse? What direction do you want the dialogue to take? What specific decisions do you want the customer to make? Each of these ends can be advanced through the help of questions if you have carefully planned your questions in advance.

Considering your goals is only half of the equation, though. You must also consider the customer and his concerns - a somewhat complicated and ambiguous task because your knowledge of the customer will always be imperfect. But, don''t let that uncertainty stop you from incorporating the customer in your preparations.

Obviously, the more you know about the customer, the more likely you''ll be able to anticipate his or her problems, needs and reactions. When it comes to presale preparation, though, some knowledge is more valuable. When preparing questions, you must weigh a number of special concerns.

One consideration is the customer''s receptiveness to you and your offerings. The customer''s receptiveness will vary greatly depending on your relationship with him or her. You can usually approach a current customer more directly than a mildly interested prospect. Unless a current customer is exceptionally defensive or unusual circumstances exist, you can probably use direct questions without fear of causing offense. A prospect, however, might require a more subtle approach. For example, you could use a series of leading questions aimed at getting the customer talking about problems that your products help solve.

A cold call to a new prospect presents a unique challenge. It usually takes a "warm-up" period before the prospect is comfortable enough with you to engage in any sort of productive dialogue. Work through this interval by asking general questions about the prospect''s business, addressing such areas as future plans, operational problems, markets and competition, as well as about customers'' needs and demands. This dialogue serves a dual purpose. You get much of the information needed to fine-tune your approach to the prospect''s specific concerns, and it demonstrates your interest, which increases trust in you.

The correct combination of questions is important. You must arouse the other person''s interest, unearth objections, and cause the prospect to express specific needs you can then address. Plan questions in advance, using your knowledge of the other person and the situation. Questions tailored to the prospect avoid the appearance of the deadly "canned" presentation. Planned questions also appear logical and helpful.

Another presale consideration involves the number and identity of customer personnel participating. If you''re meeting with more than one person, prepare questions that address the particular concerns of each. Technical attributes, product quality, pricing, financing, product service, training assistance, delivery and warehousing capabilities, benefits to their customers - each have a different impact depending on a person''s job and knowledge level. By ignoring someone''s interests and perceived needs and focusing only on benefits that appeal to you, you increase the risk of problems. Consider your audience, and you''ll avoid these difficulties.

Acquire the habit of questioning. Developing the habit of questioning is not as easy as it may seem. Due to the nature of sales work, most salespeople have more extroverted personalities. One negative consequence of this is a tendency to monopolize most conversations, including those with customers.

Resist this inclination! Naturally, you must spend a portion of each selling situation informing the customer about your products and services, but not before you have a clear understanding of the customer''s needs. Salespeople who immediately launch into a sales monologue air only their views and ignore the ideas, interests, problems, goals and needs of the customer. That''s no way to convince the customers you''re interested in satisfying their needs or solving their particular problems.

By preparing questions in advance and by using self-discipline to follow your game plan as the selling situation unfolds, you will begin to realize the importance of questions - the right questions - to your ultimate success.

If you still need convincing of the value of questions, consider how much you learn about the customer when doing all the talking - not much. The use of questions, then, will not only help you obtain the information needed to persuade effectively, it will also help you determine the direction of the sales dialogue, thus keeping you in control of the selling situation.

The habit of questioning does not come naturally to most people. It is a learned behavior. It requires practice, patience, self-discipline and good listening skills. Start developing it on your next sales call.

Take the right attitude. What you ask is important - how you ask it is critical. You can act like a cross-examiner or a quiz show host, or you can act like a trusted friend and consultant. Your attitude is your biggest asset.

Probe and follow-up. Unless you''re completely satisfied, never settle for the first answer. Instead, try to isolate the facts or opinions you seek through the use of good follow-up questions. For example:

- Why do you feel that way?

- What''s your primary reason for not wanting to change?

- What kind of delivery problems have you had?

Follow-up questions also help you avoid problems associated with semantics, where the customer might misunderstand your intent and then provide the wrong information.

Don''t restrict the customer. Use leading questions that give the customer some direction; at the same time don''t overly restrict a response. For example: "What would you say if I could show you how this approach will lead to increased profits at virtually no additional cost?" This kind of question is designed to arouse a customer''s interest and get the customer thinking about bottom line. Just be sure you can support the claims implied by such a question.

Force the customer to think. Avoid asking Yes/No questions whenever possible. They are too easy to answer and rarely cause the customer to think. Yes/No questions also provide little in real information and guarantee you''ll do most of the talking. Instead, use questions aimed at eliciting the customer''s beliefs, opinions and needs - that is, open questions that invite free expression of thoughts and feelings. For example:

- Tell me, how does this problem look to you?

- What approaches have you already tried?

Avoid inflammatory questions. Use cool questions that appeal to reason and do not inflame emotions, such as, "I''m glad we agree on this, Joan. What do you think your next step should be?"

Show respect for the customer. Ask questions that let the customers know you respect and value their views: "Jeff, you and your people have been working with this system for several years now. Why don''t you tell me where you''d like to see improvement? Then, we can see how our system compares?"

Strive for understanding. Avoid the tendency to immediately agree or disagree, thereby cutting off communication. Offer noncommittal comments until you''re certain you understand and you have communicated what you wanted to say accurately.

Try repeating or rephrasing what the customer has said. Then, search for more information or the reasons behind the customer''s views. Or, say nothing and wait for the customer to tell you what specifically is on his or her mind. Be careful, though. And, watch closely. Silence can be deadly, and getting little feedback from you can make customers uncomfortable.

Listen! Effective questioning must be combined with good listening habits if you hope to learn what is really important to your customers, what motivations and concerns influence their decisions and opinions. Because effective communication is essentially a two-way process, the best communicators are always the best listeners.

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