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A sales skills primer, part 1

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To be truly successful at getting new clients, your passion for your work must be accompanied by three essential skills:

  1. The ability to ask provocative questions.
  2. The ability to listen with total focus on your client.
  3. The ability to relate compelling stories and metaphors.

In this article, I’ll focus on the first of these skills:

The ability to ask provocative questions. If you’ve found that your prospects are backing away, it could be that you have made the common mistake of cutting short the questioning process and jumping to your solution too early. If you’re like most professionals, before talking about your services, you ask factual questions (who, what, where, when, how and why). While you need this information to understand how you can help your prospects, this process if more valuable to you than it is to them.

Sometimes, your factual questions will bring up a relevant concern, maybe even one that a prospect didn’t know he or she had. Maybe the prospect is already working with someone in your field and is having some problems with that relationship or with the results she is getting.

Well, there they are — the problems! And that’s what we do, isn’t it? We solve problems. Isn’t it time to move on to the solution? As soon as you identify this little bit of trouble in paradise, you may want to pounce with your offer of services. But if you do, more often than not, your prospect will start to squirm.

Here’s an example of a conversation my client, Lisa, a financial advisor, had with a prospect who was already working with another advisor:

Lisa: So, you haven’t heard from him in over a year, and he didn’t return your call the last time you tried to reach him? He also hasn’t explained any of these things we’ve been talking about today? It sounds like you’re not getting the service you need from him. I can promise you that I’ll check in with you once a quarter. And I always return calls immediately. How about we go ahead and transfer your accounts…

Prospect: You know, actually, I’ve been working with this guy for almost eight years. I think I should try to talk to him again first and, if he doesn’t return my call, I will get back to you.

One reason this conversation may have ended as it did (with the prospect’s objection) was that Lisa didn’t give her prospect a chance to recognize the problem. Your prospects are always weighing whether their need for change is urgent enough for it to be worth their while to make that change. When there’s only a vague sense of a problem, the scale tips in favor of leaving things as they are.

To avoid running into a brick wall, you need to move from vague problems to urgent ones. And you can only get your prospects to see urgent problems by asking more situational questions.

Here’s how Lisa handled her next conversation, after working on asking some situational questions:

Lisa: So you haven’t heard from him in over a year, and he didn’t return your call the last time you tried to reach him? He also hasn’t explained any of these things we’ve been talking about today? How is this level of service affecting you?

Prospect: It’s a little annoying that he doesn’t return my calls, but I guess I’m doing okay.

Lisa: Does it worry you that there’s no one reassuring you about your retirement or letting you know the status of your accounts?

Prospect: Well, actually, that’s the reason I agreed to sit down with you. I am concerned that there might be more I should be doing or that I might need to change my strategy.

Lisa: If you try him again and he responds this time but doesn’t respond the next time you have a concern, would that be OK?

Prospect: Well, no. I need to feel like someone is watching out for me. Maybe my account is just too small for him.

Lisa: Well, how small is it? What’s at stake here?

Prospect: I mean — this is my life savings we’re talking about!

Lisa: Yes, it is. So, I guess the only question is does it make more sense for you to wait and see what happens with this guy — or to start working with someone who definitely has availability for you and does not think your life savings is “no big deal”?

Prospect: I probably shouldn’t wait around to be disappointed again. Can you tell me more about how you work?

By helping the prospect come to his own conclusion that his problem required a solution, Lisa set the groundwork for her solution, and the prospect was more receptive to her offering.

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Sandy Schussel is a speaker, business trainer and coach who helps sales teams develop systems to win clients. He is the author of “The High Diving Board” and “Become a Client Magnet.” For more information, go to