For many years, salespeople were told that selling is talking. The apparent method was to tell the prospect everything you knew in hopes that something you said would touch the right spot and the prospect would buy. Unfortunately, the result was often a salesperson who kept the prospect pinned down with a constant chatter resembling oral machine-gun fire.

The problem created by such a theory of selling lies in its assumption that every prospect uses the product or service for identical purposes and in the same manner. Actually, every prospect has unique needs. The challenge faced by today’s consultative salesperson is to determine each prospect’s individual needs and/or problems before beginning to present the product or service and then to present only the specific features and benefits that address that prospect’s situation.

Successful salespeople are effective solutions providers. They understand that the only way to uncover the prospect’s real needs and wants is through careful questioning. The evolution of relationship selling has reached the point where asking questions to analyze customer needs is more important than the actual presentation. Sales are often lost because the salesperson did not spend enough time in the need discovery stage.

Currently, sophisticated buyers and an ultra competitive marketplace make talking your way into sales impossible. The primary focus must be on questioning and listening skills rather than on simply answering objections and trying to close. In an initial interview, the consultative salesperson may well take nothing along except a pad of paper and a pen. The pad-and-pen approach helps the salesperson to demonstrate interest in the prospect’s ideas and feelings as well as concentrate on discovering needs and probing for solutions to the prospect’s problems. The notes will be valuable later on for the presentation.

Because the fact-finding or need discovery phase of the sales process is so important, developing a plan or procedure to follow is crucial. Need discovery is the foundation upon which a successful sale is built.

Telling prospects what they need is a mistake. Even if you are right, prospects do not like to acknowledge that their problems are so obvious that you already know what they need. Your questions allow prospects to tell you about their concerns. You will often find that prospects have not recognized – or at least have not admitted to themselves – that they have any real problems that anyone else can help them solve.

Asking questions that allow prospects to discover their own needs and share them with you sets you up as a sounding board for the solutions they “discover” while considering your product. Prospects are more receptive to making a buying decision when they feel that the solution is their own idea.

Studies have shown that successful sales interviews contain more requests for opinions and suggestions by the salesperson and fewer statements of disagreement, tension, or antagonism than unsuccessful interviews. More significantly, in successful interviews, salespeople controlled the direction of the interview by the way they asked the questions.

While answering the questions, the prospect becomes actively aware of a particular buying motive and how the product or service under consideration applies to that buying motive, even though a formal statement of the motive may never be openly made. You can discover dominant buying motives by listening carefully to the answers a prospect gives to your questions because these answers usually reveal genuine needs and problems. Then, you can assist the prospect to prioritize those needs and agree that those are, indeed, the concerns that must be addressed in a decision about your product or service.

Because the sale is made in the mind of the buyer and not in the mind of the salesperson, using the questioning process to gain agreement on key issues is paramount. Research has pointed out that prospects are more likely to decide to buy if points of agreement are established early in the interview.

Some salespeople hesitate to ask questions because they are afraid the prospect will refuse to answer. However, prospects who refuse to cooperate during the relating and need-discovery phases of the sale are unlikely to cooperate at the end of the sale either. Communication is a two-way street that demands participation by both prospect and salesperson.

If you are to involve the prospect in the sales process, you must be prepared to ask questions that maximize participation. The right questions never materialize out of thin air. The exact questions depend on the product or service you are selling, your ability to phrase succinct questions that elicit the exact information you need to close the sale, and your sensitivity to the prospect’s behavioral style. As you select specific questioning methods, keep these guidelines in mind:

• Work within the professional or consultative selling style. Avoid manipulative questioning techniques.

• Let the prospect know where you are going. Explain the purpose for specific questions or where a line of questioning is leading.

• Phrase each question so that it has only one clearly focused purpose. An ambiguous question or one with multiple meanings creates misunderstanding between you and the prospect. Proceed logically, one topic at a time.

• Avoid technical language or terms unique to your industry, company, or product that might confuse the prospect. Your goal is to promote understanding and not to demonstrate personal command of technical vocabulary.

• Ask questions that help to reveal the behavioral style of the prospect. Questions about broad topics allow the prospect to reveal personality traits more readily than narrowly focused questions or those that elicit only a yes or no answer.

Remember: selling isn’t telling; asking is. Sales made to solve the customer’s problems are the result of effective questioning.

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