You had to ask Featured

9:53am EDT July 22, 2002

Too often, I give my prospects exactly what they are looking for, yet they still don’t buy. Either my prospects are lying or I am missing their true concerns. How do I uncover a prospect’s true buying motives?

Prospects typically don’t tell you their true concerns up front — either because they don’t fully trust you or they don’t actually know what they’re looking for. It’s your job to guide them through the decision-making process and help them uncover their true buying motives.

The minute amateur sales people hear a customer’s problem, they erroneously assume they understand and immediately start to solve it by demonstrating their know-how and the features and benefits of their product.

The biggest complaint against traditional sales people is that customers feel they’re only there to make the sale and not to really understand the customers’ problems. Don’t assume you know what the customers’ real problems are. The problems that prospects bring you are rarely the real problems.

Most sales people find out what the problems are, but fail to ask why they are a problem. You have to go behind a prospect’s questions to uncover the real problem and his or her true buying motives. The question “Why?” takes you there.

The way we accomplish this is through reversing. Reversing is the strategy of answering a question with another question so we can uncover the motive for the question. Prospects ask questions for a reason, and why they ask is generally more important than what they ask. It’s our job to uncover it

A question my clients often get asked is, “How big is your company?” Their initial assumption is that bigger is better, so they answer the question accordingly. However, the real underlying question could be any number of things, such as:

  • Can you handle a customer of our size?

  • Will we receive the level of service we desire, or will we be too small an account for you to pay attention to us?

  • The last firm we used had to outsource the handling of part of the work, and we had problems with it, so will you be outsourcing those functions or handling them yourselves?

  • Will you still be in business X years from now if we have a problem with the product we are buying?

    The real question opens up a pathway to the prospects’ true buying motives.

I am often nervous about asking too many questions on a sales call. I hate it when sales representatives ask me 20 questions; I feel like I’m being interrogated. What should I do?

The problem lies in both the type and manner of questions asked. Let’s start with the types. Most sales reps ask an awful lot of situational questions, questions designed to uncover facts that could just as easily be found by looking up the company’s Web site or reading its annual report. So they’re wasting the prospects’ time.

On the other hand, sales people typically don’t ask enough problem or impact questions — questions that explain why a problem is important and the impact on the company and the individual if they fail to solve it. Impact questions help you understand whether your prospects have a compelling reason to buy while making them feel like you genuinely care about their situations.

The other issue relates to how they are asked. Most sales reps fail to soften their questions. It puts prospects on the defensive. A softening statement is a nurturing remark that makes prospects feel like they are being understood — phrases such as, “I understand,” “That makes sense,” “I can appreciate that” and “I’m glad you asked that.” It gives your prospects a stroke and keeps the questioning conversational.

Larry Lewis is president of Total Development Inc., a Pittsburgh-based consulting firm specializing in sales and sales management training. Send him your comments and questions via fax at (724) 933-9224 or e-mail him at LTLewis@totaldevelopment.com. He can be reached by phone at (724) 933-9110.