The One Question That Shouldn't Be Asked
by Sean Luce
Regardless of what media you sell or represent, finding an emotional connection between yourself and the prospect is one of the most demanding aspects of a sales call. If you don't go deep enough, you could skim over the prospect's real needs. Don't be afraid to ask a question you think might be shrugged off. You might get a response of, "It's none of your business" -- but it IS your business, if you want to uncover the prospect's needs.
How you open a sales call with a prospect sets the tone for the relationship. Establishing and building sincere rapport right from the beginning of your sales call will gain the prospect's confidence and trust. But be careful not to begin with, "What are your problems?" I often see this happen, and the prospect drifts off into Euclidean space, the place where they have just lost interest or you've upset them because you crossed the line. In most cases, they don't think they have a problem. And even if they are aware of a problem, they won't tell you what it is unless you build that initial level of trust and rapport.
In some cases, building a rapport may begin with simply noticing what's hanging on the decision-maker's office walls. Recognizing important pictures or awards signals that you're interested in the prospect, though you will have to do more than that. Did you do any research on the person and company you are meeting with? It's important to do your homework before you call on a prospect. Most reps limit their research to glancing at a company website and rarely find out much about who they're meeting with and what that person's likes and dislikes are. You need to be different, because your goal is to genuinely care and help.
As you talk about why you're meeting with the prospect, you should tell them that you'll probably be asking questions most media sales reps never ask. Explain that you want to build a strategy and creative concept from the bottom up, and that your goal is to present a personalized proposal, addressing their needs and challenges -- not to try to jam a package down their throat. (That usually doesn't work anyway.)
Let the prospect know what kinds of tough questions you might be asking, before you start asking them. "I might ask where you're currently spending your money in marketing, or about your closing ratio." If it's a car dealership, you might ask, "What kind of front-end profit do you see? What kind of back-end profit do you get, on average?" Or at a furniture store, you might let them know you'll be asking about their average gross margin on particular profit centers. Be sure the prospect knows the answers will remain confidential, and will never be shared with their competition.
Telling the decision-maker up front that tough questions could be coming, questions they're not typically asked, opens the door so the prospect is not blindsided when you're ready to find out what the real problems are.
But be patient; identifying the real problems can be difficult. Often the prospect doesn't have a clear idea of what their problems are until someone with a deep sense of caring comes on the scene and inquires from a position of knowledge, rather than a position of package-peddling. (Note: Package peddlers don't ask many questions anyway.)
Asking open-ended, pragmatic, problem-related questions is where real skill is required, and it can be an opportunity to demonstrate your professionalism. Instead of asking, "What are your problems?" ask, "On a scale of 1 to 10, and there is no perfect 10, how would you rate your marketing effectiveness?" About 90 percent of the time, the answer will be "7." Then your follow-up question would be, "Why not an 8 or 9?" The prospect is then forced to think about why they don't rate their own marketing higher, and that creates an opportunity for you to delve deeper and ask tougher questions.
Rule of thumb: After you ask a problem-related question, always probe more deeply. Some follow-up questions in various situations might be:
- When you're not getting the qualified lead traffic that you expect, how does that affect your salespeople?
- Whose responsibility is it to make sure you get closer to an 8 or 9 in your marketing effectiveness?
- How much pressure does your business feel when a specific sale does not perform the way you expected it to?
- What is the one thing that makes you nervous when you open your doors each day?
These are not easy questions to ask, but any sales rep can ask the easy questions. Very few can ask the tough questions. And the prospect, if you have gained their trust and confidence, will appreciate your digging more deeply. If you have a broken leg, a doctor won't just ask you where it hurts, he'll get X-rays. You are doing much the same with your problem-related questions. You are getting under the skin of the prospect, where most sales reps never go.
Most importantly, this kind of conversation gives you an emotional connection with the prospect. Once you have shown you can be trusted -- and again, the information you gather is confidential and should never be shared -- the bond you create with your customer could last forever, depending on how you handle the relationship.
Try these approaches the next time you're on a serious first call or on a needs analysis call where you're getting down to business. You'll open up a whole new world for the prospect to think about, and, more importantly, it gives you something to really focus on in your scheduling and creative process -- the basis for a good proposal. Find the problem, work on it, and present solutions!
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