A scenario to avoid:

Salesperson shows prospect his company’s hot new product, a high end, state of the art gadget.

Prospect turns it over and asks: “How does this work?”

Salesperson launches into an extensive explanation of the technology, the complex circuitry, and the exhaustive details of the product, all while the prospect’s eyes glaze over.

Finally prospect says, in a tone that indicates she is losing her patience: “What I meant was…how do you turn it on?”

The image of the salesperson armed with constant chatter is a stereotypical one. In this case, the sales rep launched into a spiel without really understanding what his prospect needed. By probing-a vital process of asking and listening-he could have expected a better outcome.

The best sales representatives we work with aren’t the ones who have their pitch memorized or a joke always ready to tell. Instead, they have learned how to ask relevant questions in a natural, conversational tone, and how to listen for the answers that will help them tailor their sales presentation to every prospect they meet. The latter part, learning when to be quiet, is as important a presentation skill as any we teach.

How, you ask, can “shutting up” be thought of as a presentation skill? Presenting to others, especially in a sales situation, requires both content and style. Developing content that wins the trust a client requires can best be created once you have a thorough understanding of their issues and needs.

By asking good questions, you’re establishing rapport with your prospect, showing an interest in them and their story, and encouraging them to share their own expertise. You’re also breaking down barriers and getting inside information. We encourage our clients to become active listeners, asking them to go into greater depth by posing clarifying or leading questions such as “How do you define that?” and “What exactly do you mean by that?” Listening is the key to the sale.

In order to plan a targeted sales presentation that really gets below the surface, make sure you’re asking for more than info you can glean from a company’s web site. Here are some examples of questions you can use to probe for information in advance of your presentation:

  • What challenges does your business face these days?
  • What part of your business requires the most resources and energy?
  • How have you handled these issues in the past?
  • Who are some of your main competitors?
  • What’s the hardest part of your job?
  • What do you look for in the vendors that you work with?

Asking follow up questions will demonstrate your understanding and insight. If you probe well, your prospect will TELL YOU exactly what you need to do in order to earn their business. Don’t come back with a boilerplate presentation, but one that demonstrates the degree to which you have learned about their issues and the steps that your company is prepared to take to help them address them.

Your prospect will appreciate the tailored attention. And they’ll be impressed by how well you listened.

For more on probing skills and the sales cycle, we highly recommend reading the book Spin Selling by Neil Rackham.

Probing Practice:

There’s a game played by improvisational actors that will help a chatter-prone salesperson practice the skill of asking questions. (You may recognize it from the TV show Whose Line is it Anyway?) Two people engage in a conversation on any topic. Here’s the hard part: every phrase that comes out of their mouths must be a question. Questions must always follow questions-no statements are allowed.

Are you new in town?
Would it matter if I were?
Why can’t you give me a straight answer?
How should I know?
Could I have your phone number?
Why do you want it?
Do you like sushi?
What do you have in mind?