Selling: the art of the “question”

It seems like such a simple idea. Understand your customer, his/her needs and issues enough to tailor your product/service solution to meet those needs and “close the sale” to the benefit of your customer and your company/organization. From the earliest moments of recoded history, there are depictions of interactions in “the marketplaces” of early Rome, Athens, and Alexandria all depicting the age old process of buying and selling. The simple elements of this process, regardless of the wild changes of technology over the centuries, remain in place today, relatively untouched over the millennium. What interests me today is a phenomenon that I see growing that I want to suggest should be a thing of our past.

I will start this diatribe with a thought that in my experience, the best “sellers” are actually the best “questioners.” Now it doesn’t hurt if the individuals in question can handle themselves in front of a crowd and can turn a run-of-the-mill PowerPoint deck into a compelling “Tedtalk like” experience. With that said though, individuals who are great at crafting and asking questions of potential “buyers,” using EVERY customer interaction as a chance to build their understanding of the issues and needs of their buyers, have by far been the most successful in my experience. Getting a buyer to open up and start talking about THEIR ideas, THEIR concerns, THEIR worries; measuring a sales call by how much time that you LISTENED rather than SPOKE, now that’s the true heart of successful selling!

As I mentioned above, over the past few years I have witnessed a growing trend of the one-way pitch. Too many instances where there was so much information, so much detail, so many supporting research reports, and so many slides that just “getting through the deck” would take more time that was scheduled. In a recent senior executive meeting with a major retailer, literally scheduled as a dialog and an input session, I witnessed an individual who was presenting at the moment ask an audience member, a senior executive from the retailer, OUR CUSTOMER, to hold their question and they would try to get to it later because they had “so much info” to go through. Unbelievable and unacceptable! I jumped in and asked the speaker to hold on and I turned to the retail executive and asked her to share her questions/comments. She had real concerns about the topics being discussed, and only by letting her talk could we possibly understand the real and significant underlying concerns. Regardless to say the presenter did not finish all of his slides, having to adjust his content for the time still available; instead all of us in the meeting room actually had a moment of real “input” that sparked a discussion or “dialog” on possible solutions. It was clear to me that we were much farther ahead by listening, and slowing down, rather than charging through the slides regardless of comment/concern!

In an essay written a number of years ago (“You are the PowerPoint”) I commented about this tendency of letting the presentation guide your approach. I want to re-emphasize the need to absolutely get a grip in this area. NEVER and I mean NEVER plan for more than 1 slide for each 2 minutes of a meeting. A 30 minute meeting (which is very common) can NEVER have more than 15 slides, NEVER! In the same spirit take as much time planning your QUESTIONS as you do planning and building your presentation. To do a strong, crisp 30 minute meeting (remember only 15 slides), give yourself time to craft at least 15 thoughtful and tight questions, allowing you to advance the sale of the day AND build your understanding for future interactions and sales. Recent technological advances have certainly allowed us to create impressive presentations. We must be disciplined to use that technology to allow us to be great “questioners”, not just one way “fire hosers.”