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For Success in Sales, Learn Your Customer's Backstory

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Whenever I meet someone just embarking on a sales career, I gladly offer this important advice: Learn your customer's backstory.

Every customer has one, but most salespeople don't bother to find out what it is. They fret about what the customer is moving to, rather than what the customer is coming from.

Think about how you begin your sales conversation, I advise the eager young salesperson. If your questions begin with the word "what" you're probably using a to strategy. The from strategy depends on the word "why."

Related: Does Your Value Proposition Need a Checkup?

Suppose you go to the doctor complaining of severe stomach pain and she responds, "Tell me what you're looking for in a pharmaceutical drug." I don't know about you, but I'm out of there in a hurry. A good doctor will seek first to determine why you are in pain. Only then will she prescribe a treatment.

That analogy pertains any other professional you consult. The attorney wants to know the background of the conflict. The accountant wants to know how you got to your current financial state.

The truly successful salesperson seeks to understand how to improve the customer's life.

Let's say a couple is shopping for a new car. Most salespeople will immediately launch into the same tired old routine:

"What are you looking for?"

"What price do you have in mind?"

"What key features are you looking for?"

"How did you hear about us?"

And, (triple ugh), "Are you in a position to decide today?"

Related: What This Business Owner Did to Get His Team Out of a Sales Rut

That line of questioning won't get you far because you haven't learned a thing about your customer's backstory. You don't understand the context around his or her decision to walk into your showroom.

Suppose instead, you ask this very basic question: "May I ask you why are you thinking about buying a new car?"

Now, things get really interesting. You might learn that the couple's old car is in the shop again, and they're tired of pouring money down the drain, or that the wife recently totaled their vehicle in an accident and they're particularly worried about safety.

Perhaps they're concerned about the price of fuel, or they need a vehicle big enough to fit their five grandchildren.

By asking that simple question beginning with "why" you can unlock the critical information that will dictate what you do next to move the sale along. Understanding the context lets you address customers' specific concerns and lead them to the best solution -- whether it's to put safety first, get the best fuel economy or accommodate a growing family.

So before you meet your next customer, review your list of typical questions and ask yourself if they focus on providing the right product -- the "what" -- or on your customer's backstory, the why.

Here's the good news. When you learn the backstory, the sales will roll out in front of you. That's when you change your customer's world.

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