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Even though buying cycles seem to stretch out longer as buyers require more time to make decisions, salespeople are doing their best to close quicker.

Much of what’s popular in selling, such as sales techniques, figuring out a prospect’s hot buttons and even relationship building, can be enormously overrated.

Here’s the problem. Simply put, too much of what passes for best practices in sales focuses on what the salesperson should do to get the order, starting with a perfected elevator speech.

To make the concept vivid, the salesperson is like the classroom teacher of 30 or more years ago who was the “instructor,” the one who was in charge and who passed information to the often passive and less than attentive “learners.”

The result? Good salespeople with great products and services that are a good fit for their customers lose sales because they take the role of instructor, passing information to passive and often inattentive learner-customers.

Such behavior is understandable. Whether it’s the unpredictability of an extended buying cycle or the fear of a competitor entering the picture, they sense the possibility of losing the sale and immediately response by getting into a “control mode,” cutting corners, taking shortcuts and jumping to the close before the customer is ready to buy.

Trust makes the difference

Faced with such a reality every working day, it becomes clear that the critical component for making more sales is gaining the customer’s trust as quickly as possible. It has always been important, but never as much as it is today. Trust is the bond that endures no matter the length and difficulty of the selling cycle.

To be totally clear about trust, it doesn’t develop from schmoozing, making unverified or exaggerated claims, or providing incomplete information. Today’s customers are doubters; they’ve been burned too often. They want value — lots of value — for their money. To put it simply, they don’t trust salespeople. Much of the success of Amazon.com and Apple is built on recognizing customer doubt by keeping their promises.

Distrust is so fundamental today that those who ask a friend, family member or coworker for a referral engage in their own vetting process before making a decision.

Creating trust

Salespeople understand the trust issue and they have their own views about how to develop it. We’ve heard most of the solutions: respect, acting with integrity, being responsible, sincere, honest, truthful … and on and on it goes. Unfortunately, the words are generalizations, lacking specificity. They don’t mean anything to customers. 

So, the question remains, what do salespeople do to create trust? Trust develops between customer and salesperson when the salesperson asks the right questions. It’s the questions that create value, understanding and confidence.

Yes, salespeople like to talk about “meeting customer needs.” They talk about it, particularly in their presentations. But what does meeting customer needs mean? Not too much. If anything, it’s abstract and non-specific, more like a view from 30,000 feet, where you see everything and nothing at the same time. Meeting customer needs is meaningless — unless a salesperson fills the phrase with content by taking the time to ask the right questions.  

And now the questions

The goal of asking questions is to probe until it’s clear the customer is satisfied. Of course, the questions will differ based on your research of the prospect. They don’t need to be complex, but they must drill down to the heart of the issue. In emergency rooms throughout the United States, a series of three simple questions has replaced complex, computer-based calculations for assessing patients who are experiencing heart problems.

The simplicity of this approach belies the careful study that went into its development. It requires an investment of up-front time to understand the prospect, but it’s an investment well worth making.

The questions are key and here are examples of questions that help create trust:

Getting started questions:

  • What problems are you experiencing?
  • What’s going on now that bothers you?
  • What do you want to accomplish and in what time frame?
  • What makes you dissatisfied with what you’re currently using?
  • What do you like? What don’t you like?
  • What do you expect from a sales rep?

Before meeting ends questions:

  • What’s better or worse than what you have now?
  • How did you feel about this meeting?
  • Is there anything that seems to be missing?
  • Do you feel you have adequate information?
  • Do you feel uneasy about anything?
  • Where would you like to go from here?
  • Are my answers sufficiently understandable and complete?
  • Did I probe sufficiently to understand your situation, your needs?
  • How can I improve my presentation?
  • Was I more helping or selling?

Then, what happens after the sale becomes the most important component in the sales process. Salespeople often ignore this time, moving on to the next opportunity and never looking back. This leaves the customer disappointed; they feel jilted. However, this is the critical point at which the customer becomes either emissary or enemy. This is when trust becomes real.

After the sale, follow up with questions, whether a week or a month later:

  • How do you feel about your purchase?
  • What have you been thinking about?
  • Do you have any doubts, issues or concerns?
  • What questions do you have?
  • Is there anything you would like to do differently?
  • Is there anything you would like me to do?

If a feeling of trust has developed with the customer, be sure to ask for a referral.

Questions transform the selling process

As valuable as information is for a successful sales process, asking probing questions produces more than just information. It’s the most effective way to help customers become deeply involved in a dialogue — a conversation — that becomes an intriguing exercise in further discovery. It’s the way for the sales process to become an adventure, rather than a drag.

On top of that, it’s the way they come to recognize that their salesperson is serious, concerned and thorough. It’s through the questioning experience that customers become loyal partners, who are invested in the sales process rather than disengaged observers and passive participants.

The relentless task of asking questions also helps customers clarify their thinking, discover what they may have missed, revisit their assumptions, and reconsider their opinions. It’s the way to build trust and get to the right results.

In effect, the salesperson’s role is to create a stage on which the decision-making process is acted out. Ultimately, it’s the way to help customers avoid making an unsatisfactory decision. They should never need to say, “I wish I had known that before I made my purchase.”

The task of today’s salesperson goes way beyond product knowledge and even “solutions.” It’s to help customers discover possibilities they may not have considered or even thought about.

It’s your questions that make the sale.

See also:

7 tips to gain trust

What you (still) don’t know about selling to women

A lesson in client appreciation