As I started to write this column, I realized I had given myself an impossible task. How could I list the smartest sales questions to ask when there are so many? It's even more difficult when you consider that every question must be tailored to the customer, the situation and the stage of the sales cycle.
The questions you ask depend on whom you're selling to; you can't use a question the same way with every customer. The questions you'll see here, then, may not be the smartest questions you can ask, but each has a specific purpose and can be used to great advantage in the appropriate circumstance. Here are three areas to focus on so you can determine your customer's needs and ultimately make the sale:
1. Understand your customer's business. Some questions you might ask: Why do your customers buy from you rather than from your competition? What differentiates you from everyone else in the marketplace? What are some of your key challenges right now, and what are you doing about them?
Ask yourself if you're doing everything possible to understand this customer. Have you taken detailed notes about what they've told you? Have you asked for a tour of their facility to better understand how they manufacture, market or package their product? Is there anyone else you can speak with to get more in-depth knowledge of the company? You might even want to talk to some of the customer's customers and ask: What do you like about this company? How do you feel it could improve? This will help you understand this prospect's unique selling proposition.
2. Understand how your product or service fits into the customer's needs. Before you start asking questions in this category, do your homework. For instance, before making a presentation to a prospect that manufactures retail products, visit retailers that sell the company's merchandise. Ask why products are displayed the way they are, what sells best and what's not moving. The retailers' answers will help you customize your presentation to this particular prospect.
Next, ask "what if" questions, such as: If we were able to do X for you, would that help you meet this challenge you told me about? If there were a way we could provide a service that eliminated this problem for you, how would that impact your business? These questions make sense to the prospect because they're based on your real-world knowledge of the prospect's problems and challenges.
3. Close the sale, or move to the next step. Once you understand a customer's needs and goals, and know how your product or service can solve his or her problems, simply ask, "What's our next step?" The question invariably gets the customer thinking in terms of implementing the solutions discussed in talks and meetings.
Of course, even the best question is moot if you don't listen to the response--both what your customer says and how he or she says it. It's your job to interpret the answer and determine what question you need to ask next, either to find out more or to close the sale. Looking into your customers' eyes after they respond to your questions, observing their body language and listening to their tone of voice will often tell you more than their words convey. In the end, the relationship makes the sale.