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Are You Answering The Right Question?

by David Brock on November 18th, 2014

I’m occasionally amused by some of the comments and responses my blog posts provoke.  Not long ago, I published a post, The Best Sales Person I Ever Known.

In the post, I basically said this was a meaningless question.  The answer depended on a huge number of things, which until defined would produce a meaningless answer.  Even then, it would be individually based, and someone else’s experience of that “best” sales person would be completely different.

Yet, an amazing number of people, whether on LinkedIn, or email, sent me the names of the best sales person they ever met.  Clearly, they hadn’t taken the time to read the article.  They were responding to what they thought the article was about–a search for the best sales person, rather than what it really was about.  In the process, they made themselves look a little silly to everyone else who had read the article and saw their responses.

This is probably the single biggest mistake I see sales people make.  They aren’t answering the right question.  They aren’t really listening to what the customer is saying, but responding to what they think the customer is saying, or what they want to say as sales people.

We know the latter case very well.  It usually comes from some sales person deftly poising questions, trying to provoke a specific response–a word, a phrase.  They immediately leap onto that, turning a conversation into a monologue in which they talk about what they wanted to talk about–their products, rather than what the customer wanted to talk about.

The former case is also familiar.  We ask questions, perhaps we hear what we want to hear, or we think we hear what the customer is saying.  Rather than pausing, probing, reframing, we answer.  Too often because we have failed to understand, we answer the wrong question.  The one we thought they asked, not the one they really were asking.

It’s no wonder customers are frustrated.  It’s no wonder any number of customer surveys come back with responses like, “They don’t understand my needs, They don’t listen, They don’t take the time to understand what we are trying to do, They don’t care about what I want, They only talk about what they want to talk about.”

Questions have another tremendous power.  They enable the customer to consider different things.  They get the customer to think about things they may have never considered before, to shift their beliefs, attitudes and opinions.  Questions open minds and conversations.

Questions and deep understanding of the customer are the most powerful tools we have as sales people.  Properly used, they align us and build a bond with customers.  Properly used, the customer tells us exactly what they want to do and why, what they think of us and the competition, what it takes to win the business.

Yet we don’t take the time to discover this.  Instead, we rush, we guess, we answer what we want to answer, never connecting with the customer, never answering what they want and need.

Are you asking the right questions?  Are you probing, reframing, even challenging to make sure you understand what they really are saying–even going beyond the words they use?

It’s probably the single biggest thing you can do to improve your customers’ results as well as yours.

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13 Comments
  1. Dave writes: “Yet, an amazing number of people, whether on LinkedIn, or email, sent me the names of the best sales person they ever met. Clearly, they hadn’t taken the time to read the article.”

    This is very funny – because the exact same thing happened to me when I circulated your post!

  2. Fantastic, sad and unfortunately predictable observation! Not only did those readers who suggested their own “best salesperson ever” not get the underlying POINT of the post, they embarrassingly UNDERSCORED the problem. Thanks for your follow up on that post. I do feel like the discussions we provoke and responses we receive are often at least as valuable as our own initial observations if not more so.

    Hey! That in itself is an example of what you’re talking about! Language should lead to understanding, not be a tool for entrapment or means of manipulation.

    It reminds me of the old newspaper reporter questioning the candidate for mayor– “Do you still beat your wife? Yes or No?”

    Certainly not a laughing matter, but indicative of the corner we can paint ourselves into when we go in with closed questions designed only to reinforce OUR own agenda.

    • Kurt, wonderful to get your comments, you always add so much. This whole issue is so fundamental and powerful, yet it’s amazing how bad we are in execution.

  3. David Vargha permalink

    Funny that you remark about people not reading the article, but did you proofread your post? I doubt that your original article was actually titled “The Best Sales Person I Ever Known” (sic) as your post above says.

    • My bad, David. Is should have read “…I’ve Ever Known” Thanks for adding to the discussion of this issue.

    • Just a friendly tip: Those who publicly point out typos on blog posts should make sure their LinkedIn profiles are free of punctuation errors. 🙂

      • Bob, as someone who regularly fails the grammar 101 test, I appreciate people pointing out my errors.

        I don’t look to correct them, I just fix what they are right about.

  4. Very good observations here. You know the old saying, we were given two ears and only one mouth for a reason.

  5. StuartR permalink

    Completely agree that often we’re not asking the right questions. Maybe it’s a case of trying to bring the conversation back to a sales professionals comfort zone and gets the product or service ASAP. I also think that we’re inadvertently training customers on how the B2B sales conversation should play out and they come to expect that the focus of conversation is around products and solutions rather than spending more time diagnosing the business issues etc.

    • Stuart, it’s great to see you here! I think you are absolutely right. Sometimes I see customers get impatient with diagnostic conversations–largely because they’ve become so conditioned to conversations around products, features, functions, feeds and speeds. Once they get it, once they see the sales person is genuinely interested in understanding what they are trying to achieve, in drilling down, in challenging; the transformation in their attitudes is phenomenal.

      Thanks for the great insight Stuart!

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