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The Art of Asking Questions and then Listening

X5 Management colleague Mike Mack and I had an opportunity to sit down with a prospective client last week. He was speaking about some of the challenges that his sales people were facing in an ever more competitive world.

As the business owner, he had absolutely no trouble asking questions and then listening to the answers, when he met with a client. His question to us was, ‘How do you teach this to a young new salesperson?’

Lou Holtz, the famous football coach always said that “luck is when preparation and opportunity meet”. We all love to look at other people’s successes and write them off as lucky. What Holtz was speaking to this, the fact that luck typically comes to those who are prepared when the opportunities pass us.

For sales people those opportunities are when we are face-to-face or on the phone with the client. The preparation is all of the time invested in learning our product knowledge, our marketplace knowledge, and developing our skills and habits so that when we are presented with the opportunity we are prepared. Athletes consider 10,000 hours the time it takes to prepare to be an expert.

One of the challenges new salespeople have is that they are learning on the fly. They go from a lack of knowledge and skill in the early stages of development, and they believe that if they master the knowledge piece, that they will then be ready to unload that knowledge on a prospective client. The first chance they get with a prospect, they may spew large amounts of information about the product and its features before the client has indicated that this is something that they want or need.

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Asking questions and learning how to gather data from the answers is the greatest skill you can learn and practice as a sales professional.

Sales people would be much better served to develop and practice the skill of asking questions and then actively listening to the answer. (A rare and special skill in our world that will set you apart.) There are really a series of four of questions that must be answered before a salesperson should be offering all of this product information to the client.

  • The first question is: Do I trust you?
  • The second question is: Do I have a problem?
  • The third question is: Is it a problem I would like to solve?
  • The fourth question is: Is it a problem I would like to solve, today?

Until you have clearly answered these 4 questions with a definitive “yes”, you have not earned the right to present any product solutions. There’s only one way to have these four questions answered and that is why you ask questions.

For a sales person this means practicing and preparing a series of questions that you would ask a prospective client that will help establish trust. This is the early introductory discussion and requires great practice and preparation. The next set of questions should be designed to begin to understand the client’s circumstances and whether they currently have a problem. This is possibly the most significant skill a salesperson requires in that they need to understand the circumstances of the prospect and know what type of questions to ask to elicit explanatory responses.

The third and fourth questions are setting the stage for permission to show them how you can help solve the problems they have indicated they want assistance solving.

Unfortunately, society has painted the image of a sales person who is doing all of the talking. The truth is the best sales people we’ve observed spend 20% of their time asking questions and the other 80% time listening to the client answer them.

Asking questions and learning how to gather data from the answers will be the greatest skill you can learn and practice as a sales professional. So I encourage you to get “lucky” in your sales role, by practicing your questioning and listening skills and being prepared when opportunities arise.


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