Do You Want to be a Millionaire?

Dec. 1, 2003
Used intelligently, questions can help put you on the road to millions.Part two of this four-part series shows you how to use the rhetorical, overhead

Used intelligently, questions can help put you on the road to millions.

Part two of this four-part series shows you how to use the rhetorical, overhead and leading question techniques.

Asking the right questions can help put you on the path to becoming a millionaire. You can make questions work for you in selling by turning your one-way presentation into a more effective sales dialogue with the customer. Part one, which appeared in the October issue, examined the most common form of question, the direct question. In this article, I will discuss several other types of questions and their application in the selling situation.

The rhetorical question. The rhetorical question does not require or expect a reply. It’s usually followed by a brief pause - just long enough to get reactions. Especially useful when meeting with more than one customer, the rhetorical question can help keep the discussion moving in a productive direction. For example, you can use the rhetorical question to leave the impression that a particular point has been resolved and that everyone is in general agreement.

"Don’t we all agree there aren’t any serious obstacles to handling this minor problem during installation? (Pause.) Fine. Now, Eric, I believe you expressed some concerns about delivery. If you would outline your requirements, I’m sure we can put together a mutually acceptable schedule."

The idea here is to steer the discussion toward safer or more important territory when it bogs down on a minor point. Just be careful! Don’t use the rhetorical question simply to avoid difficult areas. If a customer has a genuine concern, your glossing over it won’t make it go away.

Your purpose is to keep the discussion moving so real problems can be addressed and solved. The pause, therefore, is more than a mere rhetorical device. Really a silent probe for reactions, it provides the customer with an opportunity to either agree or disagree with your initial assumption. You want to force any objections out into the open where you can request the clarification you need to handle them directly.

Similar results can often be achieved with a simple statement of fact expressed in a mildly questioning tone. For example:

"I appreciate your concerns and agree this equipment will require certain changes in safety procedures. Maybe it would be more productive if we spent a few minutes discussing the built-in safety features unique to our equipment." (Pause.)

In this instance the salesperson uses a protracted discussion of safety concerns to introduce the related features and benefits of his product. Although he has not really changed the subject of the discussion, he has altered its focus from negative to positive, from problem to solution.

Sometimes a customer will emphasize a particular need over others, even when this need is not really paramount. These days, for instance, companies will act as if quality surpasses all other requirements when, for many, cost remains the deciding factor in the ultimate purchasing decision. I am not downplaying the importance of quality, just stating that you are unlikely to encounter a customer willing to purchase "quality at any price." You must, therefore, address both quality and cost, and you must do it in a way that links these two values in the customer’s mind.

Assume, for example, that your customer has just gone over his quality requirements, but you know that cost is still a major concern. The ball is now in your court. You can simply discuss your product’s benefits as they relate to quality, but this still leaves the cost issue unaddressed. Or you can discuss the two issues simultaneously, thus reinforcing all of the values represented by your product and showing the customer that you recognize the importance of both quality and cost. The rhetorical question can be a useful device for making this transition.

"Am I correct in thinking that the quality of your end product is a critical concern? (Pause.) Then let me show how you can continue to improve that quality without any additional cost."

The answer to the question is obvious. Of course, quality is a major concern. Your goal, then, is not to receive an answer but to assure the customer that you understand and appreciate his already-expressed needs regarding quality.

Having demonstrated that you and the customer are on the same wave- length shift the direction of the discussion to include the critical subject of cost. You can now address specific quality benefits, relating each to costs and show the customer that you recognize the importance of both values.

The rhetorical question, then, helps you reinforce the perception that your primary concern is solving your customer’s problems, while simultaneously allowing you to regain control of the selling situation. When used sparingly and for the right reasons, it can be an extremely effective tool.

The overhead question. Communication often involves groups of people. Committee purchasing is the norm in many firms, and teams or task forces assist in major business decisions. Even where a normal group does not exist, you will often encounter situations involving multiple decision makers or a single decision maker supported by a group of technical people or other specialists. In these situations, the problem often becomes one of identifying either the ultimate decision maker or those who can influence the decision.

The overhead question can help. The idea is to ask the question of the entire group by throwing it "overhead" rather than focusing on any particular individual and then seeing who reaches up and grabs for it.

Obviously, this demands some skill on your part. As you ask the question, you must avoid looking directly at any one person; otherwise that person will logically conclude that the question is being directed at him or her alone and will probably try to answer it. Some people avoid this difficulty by asking the question while looking away from the group in some neutral direction, as if in deep thought. This tactic can, however, can leave an impression that you are either rude or vacuous. I don’t recommend it. A better approach is to move your eyes slowly across the entire group from one person to another, thus giving the impression that your primary concern is the answer, not its source.

There is another, more practical reason for keeping your eyes on the group. One or more of the participants will often instinctively turn and look at the decision maker as the question is asked. If you are staring off into space you will be unlikely to observe such reactions.

What you ask is equally important. Your question should avoid the narrower aspects of the topic under discussion; otherwise the person with expertise or responsibility for that area will probably volunteer the answer, and you won’t have learned anything you did not already know. You might also encounter the occasional blabbermouth who cannot resist responding to your every question. If, however, your question addresses a policy-related issue, he will be far less likely to jump on it too quickly. If he does and answers incorrectly, the others in the group will often correct him.

When formulating the overhead question, then, try to ensure it addresses an issue that only a decision maker would be likely to address. For instance, if you are meeting with a purchasing committee you might ask: "What is your company looking for primarily in this purchase?"

This question relates to policy. An engineer might think "state-of-the-art design" or "quality." Someone from purchasing might think "competitive price" or "maximum value for the dollar." A materials manager might be concerned about delivery schedules or storage problems. With a number of people present, each will think twice before giving an unequivocal answer. The key decision maker, however, will be much more willing to respond, either to supply a firm answer or to request amplification.

This particular question has another value: It just might help you identify your customer’s key buying motive, helping you decide which benefits to emphasize.

Unless you have other supporting evidence, one question will usually not suffice to identify the key individual in the group. If, however, several questions lead to the same result, you have probably found the right person.

Dealing with a buying committee or similar group is never easy, but the overhead question can help you avoid the common error of assuming that the decision maker or key influence is always the person with the biggest title. Although directing your questions only at this person might stroke his ego, it can also antagonize other members of the group who, ultimately, might have more influence. When involved in a meeting with several customers, you should take pains to get input from everybody present. Remember, they probably wouldn’t be a part of the meeting unless their opinions were valued.

The leading question. Leading questions might not be permitted in a court of law, but they are perfectly acceptable in the selling situation. The idea behind the leading question is simple: If a person thinks an idea is his, he will be more likely to explore it and take action. Applied to the selling situation, this means that it’s generally better to help the customer buy into an idea rather than forcing him to accept it with the hard sale.

In practice, the leading question plants the seed of an idea in the customer’s mind and leads him to express a need or desire for a specific product, service or idea. To be truly effective, it must be subtle. You want to help the customer discover the idea more or less on his own, or even better, to get him to think the idea is completely his. This is not a manipulative technique - the leading question simply encourages the customer to tap into his or her experience and common sense and thereby come to a logical conclusion.

Not long ago, a saleswoman attending one of my sales seminars offered an excellent example of the leading question. An advertising salesperson for a national magazine, she asked the following question during a sales call with the advertising director of a major tire company:

"What’s the fastest-growing segment of the automobile tire market in the United States today?"

The customer, recalling a recent market survey his own company had conducted, stated what he thought was the correct market segment. As it turned out, he was correct; and the answer, for which the salesperson later provided further documentation was the market represented by unmarried women between the ages of 21 and 35. The discussion that followed ultimately led to a decision to run a full-page color schedule in a national magazine whose major audience was young, single women professionals.

The leading question requires finesse and a clear idea of the results you hope to achieve. It must be asked at the right time and in the right way. Often a single question lacks the power to make the idea grow, so you might have to provide additional stimulation. Always prepare one or more follow-up questions to help the customer recognize the path you want him to follow.

The leading question is among the most powerful selling tools at your disposal. It actively involves customers in the selling situation. It brings them to your way of thinking without resorting to heavy-handed tactics. It allows you to control both the direction and content of the discussion while still permitting customers to do most of the talking. It lets customers take personal credit for the ideas generated and the decisions reached. And lastly, if his or her decision leads to favorable results, he or she will view you as a catalyst for positive change and will look forward to your future calls.

Used in the proper combination, questions can boost the effectiveness of every sales call. In the next two articles, I will examine several additional types of questions and then conclude the series by offering some practical tips on the arts of questioning and listening.