Sellers who have a strategic intent to meet buyer needs will ask questions to uncover those needs.
Sellers who plan to sell the same product with all the same specifications regardless of buyer needs shouldn’t waste time with questions designed to understand buyer needs. There is no point in asking questions to yield information that won’t be used.
By the same token, a seller who wants to understand and meet buyer needs shouldn’t abandon her intent at the first glimmer of a potential need. If the intent is truly to understand and meet buyer needs, there will be follow-up questions to probe the stated need(s) and to ascertain the scope and hierarchy of each need. When sellers leap ahead, as if a Pavlovian response kicks in to sell at the first sign of opportunity, the intent they started with is lost. Their credibility is lost, too, if the intent to understand needs was communicated to the buyer.
3 Steps to Understand and Meet Buyer Needs
Step #1 in questioning with strategic intent is to formulate a plan. A seller should know his or her objective(s) for each call. The plan will guide the questions and keep you focused on your desired outcome.
Step #2 in strategic questioning is for the seller to be aware of his or her own intent in the call. The intent is not the same as the plan. Two different sellers could have two different intentions – one may be a transaction-based seller with no expectation of repeat business while the other may be a relationship-based seller who relies almost exclusively on returning customers. Both, however, may have a plan in their next call to close the pending sale.
Both steps #1 and #2 ought to be completed before the sales meeting begins. Of course, plans may need to flex or change during a sales call. Even so, it’s best to go in with a clear direction in mind. This is more effective than pre-scripting the questions to be asked. If the plan and the intent are clear, the questions will be a natural outgrowth of them. Planning questions without having a road map or a compass is like setting out on a journey with only a few dollars in your pocket and no idea which direction to turn.
Step #3 for questioning with strategic intent is sharing the purpose of asking questions at the beginning of the sales call. This step alleviates seller apprehensions about asking questions and clues the buyer in to the purpose of the questions. One reason sellers get negative reactions to their questions is they jump right to a question without any set up or context. Caught unaware, buyers may be taken aback, puzzled or even defensive. These initial reactions make sellers reluctant to ask additional questions.
These buyer reactions are assuaged when the seller describes his or her intent for asking questions. The reason given to the buyer should be truthful and straightforward. Sellers should avoid over-promising. They should also avoid minimizing the process of asking questions. Don’t say “I just have a couple of questions. It will only take a minute.” Phrases like this diminish the value of asking questions. By setting a time limit, the seller is inadvertently instructing the buyer to keep it brief, too. That’s exactly the opposite of what the seller needs to communicate. Remember: the objective is not to race through the process. The objective is to truly understand buyer needs so you can meet buyer needs!
If you'd like to learn more about how to ask questions that are efficient and effective in pinpointing your buyers' needs, be sure to read DISCOVER Questions® Get You Connected. It's based on 20+ years of field research with both buyers and sellers.
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Deb Calvert, “DISCOVER Questions® Get You Connected” author and Top 50 Sales Influencer, is President of People First Productivity Solutions, a UC Berkeley instructor, and a former Sales/Training Director of a Fortune 500 media company. She speaks and writes about the Stop Selling & Start Leading movement and offers sales training, coaching and consulting as well as leadership development programs. She is certified as an executive and sales coach by the ICF and is a Certified Master of The Leadership Challenge®. Deb has worked in every sector and in 14 countries to build leadership capacity, team effectiveness and sales productivity with a “people first” approach.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published August 2016 and has been recently updated.