Asking the right questions

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Russ Riendeau

Walking the immaculate production floor with a CEO client just before Christmas, he introduced me to one of his salespeople, as we put away our safety glasses in a cabinet.

"Russ, I want you to meet, Jeremy. He's one of my superstars. Clone this guy, and we'll all be millionaires!"

As it turned out, I knew Jeremy. I had introduced him to another client many years ago, when Jeremy was only a few years out of college.

"So what is it about Jeremy that you want to clone?" I asked the CEO later in his office. He stared at me for what seemed like five minutes. "He just gets it, Russ. You know what I mean? He gets it." I pressed the issue. "What do you mean 'he gets it'? What does that look like in his job? What does it sound like? How is he so different that the other salespeople that don't 'get it'?"

Again, he stared at me, he was thinking hard. "He asks the questions that the other sales people are too scared to ask. He asks the customers questions that are hard to answer, but he learns something. He builds trust with the client with his great questions and he doesn't approach the customer like he's building a friendship. If the prospect is put off by his direct approach, he learns immediately where he stands and either moves on or tries to drill down more to see if the prospect is really put-off by his approach or have they been conditioned to hear sales jabber with no substance."

"Where did learn the art of asking these great questions?" I probed.

"Not sure. He reads a lot, I know that. He's not good with the technical stuff, but he sees a drawing or a part and is fast to think of all the factors that affect the final outcome. He watches people. He listens better than I do, that's for sure."

"What do your other salespeople think of Jeremy?"

"They think he's too direct. They say he ruffles prospective customers' feathers with his questions and doesn't work to build a relationship first, then get business. They say he doesn't know how our industry works. They say he doesn't make enough calls and he spends too much time on the computer doing research."

"But you told me Jeremy's your top sales person, correct?"

"Yep, by far. Top dog in new business development."

"So why are your other salespeople not copying his success formula?" I asked.

"Because they're fearful the customer will get upset and go elsewhere. They don't know how to reset their selling style anymore," the CEO said.

"So what are you going to do with the salespeople that can't or won't upgrade their approach?"

"You know what the answer is. That's why you're here."

This conversation was one of the highlights of the year for me because I was finally seeing a shift in taking a 21st century/post recession approach to the science of selling. The day has come and gone where sales professionals use the term "relationship builder" as a default approach to professional selling. Building a relationship is a myth, folklore from the 1990s.

How the business community at-large defines a "relationship" is not the same "relationship" as it would relate to a personal, non-business relationship.

What if we consider, just for a moment, to not define a business transaction or interaction with a prospective customer as a "relationship." Let's make believe the word "relationship" does not exist. What changes in the context of how we engage or persuade the prospect to do business with us?

Sales professionals selling in a competitive manufacturing environment build trust by building credibility. They build credibility by asking very accurate and direct questions about the intentions of the prospective customer needing products. They build credibility with current examples of success with other products they built. These specific and dynamic questions are built around research that is free for the taking on the Internet. LinkedIn is the best of the bunch. The ability for a sales professional to ask a challenging question of a prospect can immediately differentiate himself from the competition, and will stimulate a serious conversation about expectations. Meanwhile, the old-school "relationship builders" are eating lunch with fake decision-makers, attempting to build trust and common ground.

A relationship develops only after a sales person has established competency, credibility and challenged the prospect to demonstrate that they, indeed, are serious about doing business. The persuasive component is now shifted to be equal. Both parties have to own up to what they are saying. They are being held accountable for actions and intent. And, by the very fact that this, new and intensely specific dialogue is continuing, suggests the prospect is interested in moving forward.

We don't build relationships first in business. We build trust through intelligent conversation and questions. Relationships occur when we begin doing business. And even then, that relationship should not take on the characteristics and expectations that a non-business relationship expects. If this happens, growing sales with that customer will be challenging, because we typically don't like to challenge our friends.

Neil Rackham authored a brilliant sales training bible, SPIN Selling, in 1988. His field research proved that salespeople who challenged a customer's statements of disinterest or deflecting comments made more money, had more loyal customers and were overall happier with their jobs.

As the economy shifts to become stronger, the competition gets stronger and faster. Any sales organization that delivers updated sales and management training to sell in the new world at work will thrive. Any sales organization that gives permission to their salespeople to be more challenging and direct will see faster sales and faster decisions. And any sales organization that allows antiquated approaches to selling under the false pretense of building a relationship first with prospects, will struggle. Finding ways to solve a problem, invent a new widget or build a product on time/on budget won't happen because a relationship occurred. It will happen because someone like Jeremy asked the question "So, if I can demonstrate how we will solve your problem, you will sign this contact so we can begin?"

Russ Riendeau is senior partner of the East Wing Group Inc., a management and sales executive search practice based in Barrington, Ill.

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