From the November 2002 issue of Startups

Traditional sales models focus on the salesperson's ability to interrogate the potential client with open-ended questions. The theory is, if you're able to find out what someone really needs, you can fill that need with your product and service. What's scary is that most salespeople still don't bother with this step--they pitch whatever they're selling to whomever will listen.

One of the earliest books that outlined this approach was Neil Rackham's SPIN Selling. SPIN selling suggests you ask open-ended questions that determine the potential customers' SITUATION, the PROBLEM they have, the IMPLICATION of that problem and, finally, what product/service they NEED to fix the situation.

When the customer is qualified, the salesperson presents all the logical reasons why their solution would fix the problem and fulfill the need. If done correctly, the salesperson feeds exactly what the customer asked for right back to him.

So if all your customers know who you are, trust you and have a deep rapport with you--ask who, what, where and how questions before you present your perfect solution.

The beauty of open-ended questions is that they supply an explanation, so you can fully understand what that customer needs fixed. And the trouble with open-ended questions? Even if you have a deep rapport with someone, you rarely get a straight answer to your questions. There's a hidden meaning or context to the responses you receive. As a salesperson, you can't take any response at face value. You need to dig deep and clarify things.

Your Steps

When designing open-ended questions, remember your goal is to find out:

  • What the customer NEEDS
  • What the customer WANTS
  • Where the customer HURTS
  • If the customer has the AUTHORITY to buy today
  • If the customer has the access to MONEY needed for your solution

The way to clarify a response is simple. Follow up your open-ended questions with a "why" question.

For example, to find out what someone needs and wants, ask, "What are the most important things you look for in a widget?" When he answers, ask "Why is that?" or "Why is that important?" You can then follow up with, "If you did have that, what would that mean to you?"

Alternatively, to find out where people are hurting, ask, "What are the most important things you aren't looking for in a widget?" Then use the "why" question.

Be aware that the customer has questions as well. In fact, while you use open-ended qualifying questions to decide if you should continue the sales call, he's deciding how much time he wants to spend with you.

Customer's Steps

Before any customer will even agree to answer your questions honestly, he must recognize he has a problem and then decide to do something about it.

By default, customers are loyal. Given the chance, they'll repeat their last purchase. Once they've decided to fix a problem and know they can get what they need from existing vendors or suppliers, they return to those businesses, because they know what to expect. If they can't find an adequate solution with their existing supplier, they'll be forced to evaluate their options. This is typically the time people "shop."

Moreover, during that shopping process, they analyze their options, make some choices about where they want to get the solution and how much they want to pay.

Each party in the conversation has a different set of questions and different agendas. It's a selling process vs. a buying process filled with opportunities for the sales conversation to come to an abrupt halt.

Take the time to recognize where you are in the customers' buying cycle. Ask yourself the questions they're asking themselves. Do they recognize they have a problem and really need to do something about fixing it? Who's their existing supplier? Are they happy with their service? Do they have a standard evaluation procedure when considering a new purchase? How do they like to buy, and how much money do they have to spend?

So while questions are an important part of any sales call, in the end it's your customers questions and where you qualify in their decision that determine how long the sales conversation will last. And your skill in finding the reasons why someone would want to do business with you today will determine how efficient you can make each sales conversation.

Save yourself and your customers' time by qualifying your sales conversations. Remove "salespeople are a waste of time" from your customers' vocabulary, and "I spend too much time with customers who don't buy" from yours!


James Maduk is one of North America's leading sales speakers. He is the creator and publisher of more than 80 online sales training courses, and he broadcasts daily on VirtualSelling Radio. You can reach James at (613) 825-0651 or visit his Web site at www.jamesmaduk.com.