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A Winning Sales Approach - How Sales Questions are like a Funnel

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Over the past year, I’ve been involved in a number of significant sales training initiatives at Richardson Sales Performance with companies that had first invested heavily in other types of sales performance improvement programmes. Each had been trying to make fundamental changes in their sales approach to match the constantly evolving B2B buying environment.

As one of our clients, a recently relayed chemical distribution company’s salespeople had taken another flavour of sales training, and while they liked the training, there was no sustainment of the learning. They weren’t using their new skills or changing their behaviours. Implementation and execution had suffered, and so they approached Richardson Sales Performance for sales training in blocking-and-tackling skills that could help in delivering the expected results.

When I have asked other clients about their experiences and why they’re interested in Richardson Sales Performance’s Consultative Selling Skills, they say things like this: “My guys have been trying to provoke new thinking and ideas, but they don’t have the credibility. They’re 24-years-old and trying to tell executives how they should run their business instead of asking good questions and establishing a meaningful dialogue. They just end up sounding arrogant.”

Winning Sales Approach - Asking vs. Telling

Age isn’t the issue here; it’s strategy and preparation. At Richardson Sales Performance, we believe that the strategy of telling vs. asking, especially without the proper preparation, can chill many deals. We are, after all, human beings, and we typically prefer a dialogue over monologue.

A consultative selling strategy is steeped in meaningful dialogue with thought-provoking sales questions and strong objection-resolution skills. Salespeople take control but in a different way than other sales approaches advocate. They know what they want to accomplish at every point in the dialogue, taking the time to probe, learn and gain a thorough understanding of the customer’s needs, decision criteria and other relevant information before discussing any product.

My overall sales questioning strategy is like a funnel. At the top are open-ended questions that show some insight and preparation. It’s not coming in and saying, “Tell me about your business.” That type of question will only win a quick exit out of the door.

A good high-level, open-ended question is one that gets the customer talking. “I see there’s an effort underway to change the financial regulations in a manner that could have a significant impact on how you do business. Several of my clients are quite concerned about this. What has been the reaction in your company?”

The next question will depend on the customer’s answer, which means listening closely and intently to what is said and, if possible, determining if there’s something left unsaid that needs further probing. Through active listening and observation, salespeople should be able to pace the dialogue, moving between asking questions that seed understanding or seek confirmation and providing insights that seed new ideas or influence thinking. At Richardson Sales Performance, we call this the Sales Conversation Pendulum.

There’s value in provoking thought and being a bit disruptive, but to be effective with customers, such provocation has to come from the right questions and insights. If the foundation isn’t there, the salesperson will likely be hammered with objections. And, while the Richardson Sales Performance model includes a multi-step model for resolving objections, it’s better to be prepared and avoid going down that path if you can.

As the dialogue progresses and depending on the level of people involved, the salesperson may get to what I call the bottom of the funnel questions. These explore the specifics related to things like strategy, infrastructure, attitude and culture.

Whether asking sales questions at the top or the bottom of the funnel, all should be designed to provoke a rich conversation that does two things. First is to demonstrate that the salesperson has done the homework, is well prepared and has earned the right to be listened to and considered. The second is to show that the salesperson possesses real knowledge and insights that are relevant and timely to the customer, making them a good choice as a business partner.

This kind of consultative approach, with good questions and insights, creates a strong foundation for interacting with customers and executing more productive sales calls.

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