How much thought do you put into asking a question? For most of us, question-asking is often reduced to a very clinical exercise. We want to find out information from someone so we ask that person a question. Usually when we formulate the question in our head we give it a minimal amount of thought, focusing only on saying enough to make the person understand what we are looking for. Very often, the question comes out of our mouth almost at the same time we are composing it in our head. But it occurred to me recently that, more often than not, our reasons for asking questions are more complex than simply attempting to learn one discrete fact.
In my business, I am always asking questions. Very often these questions are directed at my customers or my potential customers. I recently began to realize that my questions were designed to do many things at once; I was trying to learn what made the customers tick, understand their problems, determine what I could do to help them, find out if they were happy with me, figure out how I could make things better, get a better feel for how I might expand my customer base, etc. Well, if I expect my questions to be powerful enough to accomplish all these things, then it stands to reason that they would have to be great questions. Which got me to thinking that in order to formulate great questions, then maybe it would be worth my while to put some serious thought into what would make my questions high-quality ones!
The more thought I gave to this subject, the more things began to take shape. My musings about asking the right questions began to crystallize into a concrete approach that I could use in sales. The approach is designed to help me quickly assess the background of a situation, and then use that knowledge to help both my customers and myself recognize their problems and my solutions. The key steps of my new approach can be summarized as:
STEP 1: Ask questions that make me understand their situations: If I am talking to a current or future customer, the first thing I want to do is to find out as much as I can about his/her business situation. So what characteristics make a question do the most for me in this regard? Tim Hagen, President of Sales Progress LLC, makes some interesting points in one of his articles: when he states that the prospect or customer must become directly engaged in the discussion. In order to make this happen, it is important to ask “open-ended” questions; in other words, questions that lead to answers much more elaborate than a simple yes or no.
STEP 2: Follow up with questions that make them understand and feel their problems: Once I understand a person’s situation, I am in a much better position to provide help! So the next question might focus on more specific problems the customer is facing, but ones in which I happen to know that my product or service might be able to provide some relief. As an example, my business happens to be renting self-storage units. If I happen to find that my friend is in the automotive businesses and is becoming overwhelmed with the requirement to keep large volumes of records for a long period of time, I might ask him how much he pays for his office space lease.
STEP 3: Listen! Listen! Listen! There is no such thing as a good question when the questioner does most of the talking. Neal Rackham, best-selling author and Chairman/CEO of three international research and consulting firms, said it best in a recent article. According to Rackham, “If you talk for more than one-third of the discussion, then you are selling badly.”
STEP 4: Finally, ask questions that make them visualize the solution: I can be the hero by providing the solution that will “rescue” the customer from the problems that both of us are seeing. But the best way to do this is by asking questions that lead the customer to the point where he/she is asking for my product even before I show it. The questions can be framed in a way that they create a mental image of how things will look after the problems are gone and the customer’s situation is noticeably improved.
Let me give you an example. I was visiting a facility in Florida recently, and after a long day of work I stopped at a corner cafe. I always make a point of meeting new people when I travel, so I introduced myself to the fellow on the bar stool next to me and struck up a conversation. He looked rather harried and once I felt comfortable enough, I asked him how things were going with him. This was when I began to realize that he had a good reason for needing his drink. He had come from upstate for a horse show. He had brought, in addition to his string of horses, a trailer full of tack. But when he got to the agriculture center and horse park, what he found was, in his words, “chaos.” He explained that he had been guaranteed two extra stalls to store his tack, but the horse park had overbooked. As a result, $40,000 worth of tack was now sitting on his trailer in the parking lot of his hotel.
I asked him the size of the two stalls he had planned to use (12íx12í) and how much he would have paid (about $400 for the month he would be here). It wasn’t long before my companion learned that I rent nice, secure, climate-controlled 150 square-foot storage spaces costing $123 per month and that he had a solution to his problem sitting right in front of him. I didn’t intend to make a sale — I just tried to listen and help my new friend work through his problem. But by asking questions that would make me understand his situation and then following up with questions that would uncover problems which I could solve for him, I was able to not only solve his problem but enlist him as a happy customer. And I didn’t even have to suggest the idea.
After putting my new approach to work, I find I am beginning to lose my taste for sales pitches. Asking questions and listening is much more fun.
Art Decker is a division manager with Self Storage Company, which operates a group of websites, including a California self-storage locator. Though busy, Art enjoys meeting new people and clients when traveling to sites, like San Francisco or the Los Angeles self-storage center.