When Selling: Ask Questions, Rank Your Prospects and Listen

Asking questions is critical to succeeding in selling your product or service or your business in general. Too often otherwise good sales reps fail because they just haven’t learned to stop talking and start listening. They want so much to tell a prospect everything they can possibly think of about their fabulous product or service that they refuse to let their prospect get a word in edgewise. This is many times a fatal mistake. As CEO and role model of your firm, are you too often making the same blunder?

The objective of basic sales questions is to identify what your prospect actually wants. What they want may not at all be the super-duper bells and whistles that you perceive as your product or service’s greatest attraction.

So start by asking the simplest question of them all: “What can I do for you?” Then pipe down and listen closely to what your prospect says. It’s the surest way to gather invaluable consumer feedback.

As you listen more closely, gradually ask other questions relating to what your prospect is seeking. Once you’ve heard enough, explain those aspects of your product or service that can benefit your prospect. Operating in this manner, you will no longer feel a need to shoehorn all the features, bells and whistles into the conversation. Since your prospect may have little or no interest in many of these, you will thus save everyone lots of time and wasted breath.

By asking more questions and listening even more, you can take any sales conversation to a higher level. After listening closely for your prospect’s perceived needs, you can leverage your own insight to point out possible needs they hadn’t considered. This is how you establish “value distance.” This means positioning yourself not only as an expert who can solve problems but also as someone who can add even greater value than that, a value your prospect would never have imagined.

Your soon-to-be new clients will now begin believing that they would be utterly foolish if they passed on enlisting your services. Once a prospect reaches this point, the next and final step is to merely iron out the details.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Along with questions to ask your prospects, consider also valuable questions you should ask yourself. These will often heighten your efficiency as to who should be considered a worthwhile prospect to meet with at all, thereby increasing each sales call’s likelihood of success.

1. Are You Targeting the Right Market?

When sales seem hard to come by, we often incorrectly identify poor sales skills as the culprit. Yet it may be instead that the market we’ve targeted doesn’t really want or even need our service. Or maybe its prospects don’t typically have the wherewithal, i.e., the money (!), to afford our fees. When you search elsewhere for more qualified “prospect profiles,” your sales success ratios may find themselves leaping up a rung or two.

2. Do You Rank Your Prospects?

Even when directing your efforts toward the right target prospects, certain categories of these prospects may tend to naturally become clients in contrast to others that will prove difficult no matter what you offer them. To keep yourself from running around in circles, try “ranking” your prospects according to their probability of becoming customers of yours.

How to do this? First, draw up a list of characteristics notable in those who typically do hire you. A few examples: size of company, revenue of company, industry your client companies serve, officer in company who typically makes the decision to hire you, etc.

Also note the characteristics of those who tend not to hire you. Sometimes prospects that seem like obvious customers for your product or service turn out to be duds time and time again. By looking at both sides of the prospect equation, you’ll end up with a scoring grid divided into such categories as High Probability, Moderately Probable, Ambiguous, Poor Prospect, and Totally Unlikely. In time, those preferable categories will become easier to spot and focus your energies on even without stopping to rank them.

3. Are You Making It Too Easy for a Prospect to Become Your Client?

This may sound astonishingly counterintuitive but in my experience making your prospects jump through a few hoops before they sign on with you can be quite effective for weeding out the window-shoppers and tire-kickers. Your ranking system can help with this although sometimes even with ranking you will still get fooled. So an added protection against such prospects unlikely to sign on with you is to stretch out your selling process. Examples might include giving prospects some “homework” to do, setting up a second meeting, trying out your product etc. Your aim here is to make your prospects demonstrate that they are genuinely interested and motivated in you as their vendor and business partner. Once you’ve got them jumping through most or all of your rings of fire, you’ll have a “keeper” of a client who will sometimes stay loyal to you for many months if not years.

4. Are You Presenting Yourself to Your Prospects as Their Equals?

What distinguishes a true industry leader from just another vendor or contractor is that this expert or company is the genuine article, that is, the best there is, the go-to authority, the expert with an edge. Consequently, relate to your prospect as if you’re already on the payroll. Listen, ask questions, explore, share, rank, brainstorm, and offer innovative and insightful advice. As your prospect’s industry thought leader, assume an air of confidence that suggests hiring you and your firm would be the best decision they ever made.

As management guru (and industry leader) Alan Weiss teaches consultants in his writings and his speeches, “It’s entirely within our power to control the sales process. But that requires the confidence to believe that we have value to offer and the diagnostic skills to determine what the actual issues are. Too often we act as order takers, obsequious beggars with our hat in our hand, hoping we’ll be chosen. We should, of course, position ourselves as independent and objective experts, peers of the buyer, who can provide ideas, provocation, and new perspectives on the spot.”

By paying attention to my above questions as well as my follow-up recommendations, sales by you and by your sales team will soon raise your company high above your competition.  You’ll be dancing toward success not struggling as both you and your prospects joyfully discover the right fit.


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