From the August 1996 issue of Entrepreneur

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.

Making A Match

Asking the right questions helps you answer the unspoken question that hangs in the air at every meeting with a prospect: Are we compatible? If you and the prospect are compatible, the trust will build. To determine your compatibility, stick with open-ended, cut-to-the-chase questions that require you to do most of the listening. Examples:

  • What are your needs?
  • How can I be of help?
  • What is your time frame on this?

Then make requests that influence people to disclose their true motives early in the qualifying process. One good example: "Right now, we are just getting to know each other. Neither of us knows yet if this is going to be a fit. That's why I want you to tell me exactly what you need so I can determine how we can best help you."

The beauty of this request is that it gives the prospect permission to tell the truth. When you withdraw a bit by letting the prospect know that you realize this relationship may not work out, you give him or her permission to be honest. It's a form of unconditional love-and, yes, some salespeople roll their eyes at the mention of this term, but it's a method I know works.

How many times have you found yourself in what you thought was a closing-the-sale situation when suddenly the prospect tells you she cannot do anything without talking to her attorney, the vice president of marketing or her business partner? Here is a qualifier that can eliminate this problem: "Do we need to invite anyone else to our meeting whose presence you believe is required for a decision to be made, either at this time or in the future?"

Tony Parinello, host of the radio talk show "Selling Across America," says he learned how to use cut-to-the-chase qualifying questions only after a prospect gave him a 10-minute time limit in which to make his presentation. At the time, Parinello was a sales star at a multimillion-dollar computer company and had landed an appointment with the president of the largest quick-photo-development company in the United States. Parinello cold-called the man, got him on the line, and was told he could come up and talk to him-but only for 10 minutes.

Parinello started with a qualifying question that had worked well for him in the past: "What are your goals and objectives regarding the efficiency of your operation between now and the end of the year?"

Then he asked the man to fill in the blanks. It took the prospect the entire 10 minutes to answer the question, and just as he was about to wrap up his final answer, he stood up and moved toward the door, telling Parinello his 10 minutes were up.

The man's office was filled with art; it looked like a museum. Parinello had wanted to ask about the significance of certain paintings, but because of the time limit, he hadn't asked during his presentation. As he followed the man to the door, fumbling to close his briefcase and walk at the same time, Parinello decided to throw in one more question out of sheer curiosity. "I know my time is up, but I'm curious," he asked. "How does this painting apply to your business?"

The painting depicted Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego. The bleachers were filled with a crowd of people holding up banners; in the forefront was a 1961 Chevrolet Impala hardtop with its front wheels off the ground. There was a man kneeling on the ground with a yardstick, and another person looking to see how far off the ground the car had lifted.

The prospect explained that in San Diego they have a contest where people put hydraulic shocks in their cars and the car that bounces the highest wins. He added that he has his own "yardstick," and when people come into his office with a new idea, he measures how high they jump. The person who jumps the highest wins.

This explanation led Parinello to another question, one that kept him in the man's office another 45 minutes. At that moment, he discovered his most valuable investigative question and opener: "What do I have to do to measure up to your personal yardstick to get your future business?"

All these stories about asking questions indicate that you must be a better listener than a talker. I'll devote an entire column to the art of listening sometime soon.

Contact Source

Danielle Kennedy presents sales and marketing seminars and keynote addresses worldwide. She is the author of five sales books as well as audio and video sales training programs. Write to her in care of Entrepreneur, 2445 McCabe Way, Irvine, CA 92614.