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Talking to prospects: sales call or cross examination?

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“Everyone says to ask questions but how do I discover my prospect’s needs or problems without sounding like I’m interrogating her?”  

I hear some version of that question on a regular basis. The idea that questions are the key to uncovering opportunities is well established, but many sellers have difficulty applying the principle and some question whether questions are even the appropriate technique.

In a short article such as this, we can’t delve into the topic of questioning in depth but we can address the basic issue of the overall role of questions as a tool in the needs analysis phase of a sale.

Even if we’ve done extensive research and believe we have uncovered an issue or a problem that our prospect may or may not know about but that they need to address, we have to speak with our prospects to discover what their needs and issues are; how important those issues, problems or needs are to them; and whether or not they are interested in investing time and money in solving the issue.

The above is the “needs analysis” phase of qualifying a prospect.  We can’t sell if there’s no need or want of our product or service.  Consequently, we either have to discover or create a need or want for what we sell.

That’s where questioning comes in, and for many sellers, that’s where the worry about sounding like a CIA interrogator comes in. How can we use questions to discover needs or problems without making our prospect feel that if they don’t answer correctly we’ll pull out the rubber hose?

We’ve all been taught the difference between close-ended and open-ended questions. We’ve been given instructions on when to use which type question. Some trainers have given us formulas; others have given us specific questions to ask.

It’s these detailed guidelines that seem to get many sellers in trouble — that gets their questions to resemble Gestapo tactics rather than a discussion with a prospect.

So how do you use questions without intimidating or badgering?  

The answer is actually quite simple — don’t interrogate your prospects. Instead, of trying to figure out whether to ask an open-ended or close-ended question here or which specific question to ask now, just ask the natural questions you’d ask your friends if you were trying to understand their problems.

Certainly there are different uses for different types of questions. Certainly there are times when an open-ended question will be more productive than asking a close-ended question. Ultimately though, the goal isn’t to ask the correct question type but to communicate with your prospect.  

Communication is an art. We all can and need to improve our communication skills.  

That being said, I’ve found that if I am sincerely interested in understanding my prospect’s needs, my questions come naturally. They’re the same questions — delivered in the same tone of voice — I’d ask a friend or my spouse if I were trying to understand their situation, and those questions and that tone of voice is hardly that of an interrogator. 

Rather than being perceived as an unwanted interrogation, my questions are viewed as a sincere desire to understand, to communicate and to help. Rather than putting my prospect on the defensive, my questions usually cause the prospect to willingly open up more.  

If you find you’re uncomfortable with using questions for fear that you’re putting your prospect on the defensive or you’re coming across as a prosecutor cross-examining an unwilling witness, don’t give up on using questions because questions are the answer to understanding your prospect’s needs and how you can help. Instead, give up on trying to use formulas or control the conversation and simply approach your prospect as a friend who has a problem you want to understand. Ask the natural questions that come to mind and you’ll find your prospect will not only open up more easily, they will be more open to listening when it’s your turn to offer a solution.

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