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Screen Test

Qualify prospects by asking the right questions.

Two overriding sales problems plague most businesspeople: the need to find more qualified prospects, and the knowledge and use of proper questions to determine prospects' qualifications. The following field-tested stories and lessons may benefit you if you put these how-tos of qualifying prospects into your sales repertoire.

Nothing prepares you more for a spectacular presentation than knowing how to ask the right questions. We can all learn a lesson in the art of asking questions from John Hewitt, founder of the Jackson Hewitt Tax Service franchise. Hewitt says his ability to ask questions that guarantee truthful answers is one reason his success rate with prospective franchisees is so high.

During a recent visit with one potential franchisee, Hewitt learned the man needed to draw a salary from the business during the first year. After asking some introductory questions, Hewitt determined that if the prospect opened a new franchise instead of buying an existing location, he would most likely have to borrow money for the first year and wouldn't be able to take a salary for at least two or three years.

Two important qualifying questions enabled Hewitt to sell the man an existing franchise, located only about an hour away from the prospect's home. First, Hewitt asked, "Are you willing to relocate?"

The prospect said, "No."

Then Hewitt focused more closely on the issue with his second qualifier: "How do you feel about driving an hour to work every morning?"

The drive was not a problem, and the man was able to buy a potentially lucrative business, which was suffering only from absentee ownership. His goal of drawing a salary the first year became a reality-all because Hewitt practices the art of asking the right questions.

Hewitt explains that by creating an honest environment, he is able to discover the best solutions for his future franchisees. In this case, he could easily have persuaded the prospect to stay in his immediate area and start on borrowed money, but that solution wouldn't have benefited the buyer. Selling instead of serving has never been Hewitt's style because he wants to create a family of long-term satisfied business partners.

Sometimes, how you phrase a question and your tone of voice are just as important as what you ask. I frequently sharpen my interviewing skills by watching one of my favorite TV journalists, Maria Shriver. She once posed a very personal question in an extremely tactful manner to a successful rock star who was raised in the ghetto by a single mother. Although this is not a direct quote, one word in particular stood out during Maria's questioning. The word was "temptation." She asked the star something like, "In your neighborhood, the temptation to take drugs was all around you. How did you handle and overcome these temptations?"

The man admitted he had been tempted many times. However, he continued, he knew it would break his mother's heart if he experimented with drugs.

Shriver's voice was warm and compassionate, and her choice of words was very appropriate. The key word, "temptation," was nonthreatening and allowed the man to admit that he had often been tempted.

Entrepreneurs can learn much from veteran journalists; their yearsof experience have trained them to skillfully illicit information from their interviewees.

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This article was originally published in the August 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Screen Test.

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