Tao of Sales
The Tao of Sales
An Easier Way to Sell in Tough Times
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Essential Selling Skills

This series of articles contains fundamental selling skill "How To's:" How to listen better, create better rapport and trust, ask questions better, manage customer resistance and uncertainty better, give better presentations, be a better creative problem-solver for your customers. Each article includes simple action steps you can take right now to develop into a more successful salesperson - and sell "easier."

Sales Training
Turn sales training into improved sales performance.

Chi – Do It Now

Mastering the skillful use of questions is easy - it just takes practice. But don't practice on your customers!

Instead, prepare a questioning strategy you want to develop, such as the "Chris Evert Return" techniques in this article. Mentally rehearse how you would actually use this technique in a conversation. (Mental rehearsal is a critical preparation step. You're "training" your subconscious mind to use the technique.)

Then just select a social gathering where there's no pressure, and practice away!

Search for sources on sales questions, mental rehearsal and emotional intelligence

Other Articles in this Series

Becoming a Superstar Sales Listener

Recommended Books
Click on titles for more information

Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work

Exceptional Selling: How the Best Connect and Win in High Stakes Sales

Selling with Integrity

Secrets of Question Based Selling: How the Most Powerful Tool in Business Can Double Your Sales Results

You Can't Teach a Kid to Ride a Bike at a Seminar : The Sandler Sales Institute's 7-Step System for Successful Selling

Sales Coaching
Peak performance and coaching and the mental game.

Sales Motivation
Speaker, author and coach
New Light Learning and Development


(C)2007 E. Thomas Behr

About 10 to 15 years ago, sales books and sales training programs started figuring out that it was more important for salespeople to ask questions than simply "pitch" a product at customers blindly. Now there are dozens of books and even more sales training programs designed to teach you how to ask smart questions. In fact, there's a deluge of advice about how to use questions to get the customer to say "yes." We're talking about dozens of best-selling books with over a 1000 "smart questions" salespeople have to learn. That's a lot of questions. If you mastered the use of one a week, it would take almost 20 years to learn to use them all.

So maybe the problem is not asking questions, but trying to ask "smart" questions. Suppose the real key is that to get a smart answers from customers, you need to ask "dumb" questions?

To test the validity of that assertion, stop for a moment and complete this exercise:

  1. Take out a piece of paper and a pen or pencil and answer this question:

  2. "What do I most want to accomplish as a salesperson?"
  3. Now look at your answer, and write your answer to this question:

  4. "Why is that important to me?"
  5. Now looking at what you just wrote, write your answer to this question:

  6. "Why is that [what you just wrote] important to me?"
  7. Do it one more time. Look at your previous answer and write your response to this question:

  8. "And why is that important to me?"

Now compare your answer to question #1 with your answer to question #4. Chances are your last answer is more thoughtful, and closer to the values ands goals that really motivate you than the first. (By the way, in workshops, I have people repeat the "Why is that important?" question five times. Often, the really important answers only surface at the 5th reiteration.)

So what's going on? Well it's simple. In everyday conversation, we think, and thus communicate in superficial generalities, because that's the easiest way to get through the extraordinarily crowded lives we lead. I mean, consider stopping for directions (you're late for a wedding and one of you has finally decided to get help) and ask a guy, "How do I get to the Church of Holy Rest?" and the guy asks, "Well, what do you mean by 'Holy Rest'?" or "You seem to be in a hurry. Could you tell me why that's important to you?" Your answer: "This guy's a moron. Go back to the last intersection we passed and take a right this time!"

Let's say you've done a good job clarifying a customer's current situation, and then start exploring what the customer wants, that he doesn't have, and the customer says, "I guess what we really need is to improve sales productivity." A less skilled, less experienced salesperson might jump all over that, and pass "sales productivity" through his or her own filters. "Great! We have a solution for that. Our Whack-a-Dolt interactive, on-line web-based training is just what he needs!" And then start pitching. And often striking out, because the meaning of "sales productivity" is what the customer gives it, not the salesperson.

A more skilled salesperson will slow down at that point and start asking "dumb" questions, like "What does 'increased productivity' mean to you? Increased call frequency, better targeting of 'A' customers, etc.?" "Where do you see the lack of productivity happening?" "What people in your organization seem to be having the most problems?" "In which situations?" "If you could design a solution, what might it look like?" "What would it mean to you if you were able to solve that problem?" There are, in fact, smart questions, and there's certainly a time to use them, but they're still directed at what may well have been a superficial answer by the customer in the first place. The salesperson may be designing a perfect solution for the wrong problem, because the customer hasn't figured out what the real problem is, in all it's complexity.

What are stupid questions?

They start from the premise "I don't know. Can you help me understand?" Instead of responding to a prospect's statement with your own answer, ask a clarifying question.

Prospect: "We're pretty happy with the vendor we're using."
Salesperson: "What do you like about how they serve you?"

Compare that approach with what often happens in sales calls. The salesperson jumps to an assumption "I can't make this sale" and gives up, or, more typically perhaps, tries to convince the prospect that he shouldn't be happy (that's a difficult, and usually a usually futile effort).

When I first started coaching salespeople, I called this approach the "Chris Evert Technique," named after the great tennis champion of the 1970's and 80's (18 Grand Slam titles, a .900 winning percentage, and inventor of the two-handed backhand). The signature of her game was that the only time she went to the net was to shake the hand of the woman she'd just beaten. She stayed back, on the baseline, returning everything her opponent hit at her, until her opponent just couldn't take the pressure and made a physical or mental error. What made her return game even more devastating was that she hit the ball back with a nasty spin, forcing her opponent to keep moving and cover more of the court.

The first, and most impactful, book I read on this approach was Sandler's You Can't Teach a Kid to Ride a Bike at a Seminar. I disagree with Sandler's premise: that customers are trying to mislead or "get over" on salespeople. That assumption tells you more about Sandler than it describes customers, but his techniques are great. His name for this technique is "reversing." Here's a Sandler "reverse" when a prospect asks a question (p. 92):

Prospect: "Will this software package work with Windows?"
Salesperson: "That's an interesting question. Why do you ask?"
Prospect: "I'm wondering just how difficult it will be to run in Windows."
Salesperson: "That makes sense. But can I ask why that is important to you?"
Prospect: "Because all the other programs I've tried to run in Windows 2.1 haven't worked easily."

Taking the time to explore what the prospect meant by what he said opened up the real issue. Compare that conversation with what might happen if the salesperson said "Sure. It works great," and then starts pitching product features. He puts himself in the same class of the other salespeople who have misled this prospect about software compatibility. What's the risk? The prospect may think "He's lying, or ignorant," and end the sales call. The simplest version of the technique: hearing the prospect or customer's key word and returning it.
Prospect: "We're not satisfied with X."
You: "Not satisfied?" (That simple return invites a response from the customer. Or you could put a spin on the return. "What might make you more satisfied?"

Hit it back

Two warnings: Misused, this technique can feel like an inquisition. Remember to acknowledge, or better, praise the prospect or customer first (Sandler calls is "stroking"). "Good point…" "That's fair…" "I can understand why…" "You believe that…." You can also reduce the pressure of the technique by "softening" your questions with words like "might," "seems," "appears," "could be," "possible." If your credibility depends on a straight answer to a direct question like "What's your bottom line price?" - answer it. Then reverse. "What does 'bottom line' mean to you?" For an example of this technique in practice, read "You Don't Like Questions."

You can work with this approach from two different perspectives. The first is to treat it as a sales ploy or technique (as Sandler recommends). The danger with doing that is that prospects or customers will feel, subconsciously, that they are being manipulated, and resist. The safer approach is to accept the reality that you really don't understand, and ask out of a genuine desire to learn from the customer.

Finally, here's the real "spin" on the "Chris Evert" technique. Recognize that the real point of these questions is not just for you to know what customers mean, want or intend, but for customers to reach that depth of understanding about their thinking and potential choices so you can help them make a better choice.

ps. There really are "smart" questions, too. Later articles in this series will discuss how to use questions to build both successful, profitable sales and strong, loyal customer relationships.