Opening up the dialogue

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Open access no. 11/2020

Person-to-person sales rely on the communication and rapport between the salesperson and the client. This article is about how to use the right questions all the way through the sales process as a way of ensuring that you have understood your business partner, that you are getting proper feedback and that you are connecting with the client as a person and as a partner. It is an amazingly effective way of staying in tune with each other and of checking whether you are both on the same page.

The client as your partner

The more sales methods have evolved, the more they have profited from all manner of communication techniques. The American psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg - who wrote the book ‘Nonviolent Communication’ - rejects the use of force or control in any way in communication. His method has been used in politics to advance peace between conflicting parties. Only when both parties feel entirely free of pressure, in whatever form, are they more likely to reach agreement. He lays out how to connect with others by expressing feelings and needs while empathetically listening to and understanding the feelings and needs of the other person. When the needs of the client (and not the product) are at the core of a business relationship, business is more likely to get done and the relationship will be sustainable. In the same way, the needs of the salesperson and the needs of the client must align.

The magic of staying in tune

There is a magic to staying in tune with your client by asking questions – the magic of an open dialogue, which allows for:

  • Politeness and respect
  • Understanding
  • Emotional connection
  • Feedback

The magic lies in engaging with your client and in not trying to control, block out or manipulate what the client says; in allowing – even welcoming – both agreement and disagreement in equal measure. An open dialogue - free of pressure - is a great basis for doing business. You relinquish control over the outcome of the sale in favor of the relationship. You are making a strategic bet that the client will be more comfortable when not feeling coerced and that a deal is more likely to happen when there is a good relationship.

A finesse

In a game of whist or bridge, there is a strategy called a ‘finesse’, whereby you try to win a trick with a low card. You may win the trick because of the way the cards are distributed; or you may lose it now rather than later by drawing out the winning cards of your opponents. Whether you win or you lose, it is a win. You take a calculated risk of not only losing a trick but also of losing control over the direction of the game at the beginning - with the strategic goal in mind of winning the game in the end. Giving the client space to disagree and to air his concerns is a calculated risk leading to a win-win situation.

Questions have a purpose

Questions can be useful for guiding a conversation. They are often classified as open or closed. *

I have not found this classification to be useful. I use both open and closed questions all the way through the sales process. The important thing is not whether they are open or closed, but what is their purpose? Below are some examples.

Questions as a form of politeness

Instead of barging into a sales pitch and steamrolling the client with facts, try using plain and simple politeness, to ascertain if they want to hear this.

  • How much time do you have?
  • Would you like me to give you some background into our company?
  • Is it okay for you if I explain more about the product?
  • Would you like to tell me about yourself?
  • Would you like to look at the proposals I have prepared for you?

The client will be mollified by being included in the process forward and will generally agree. Or you will get invaluable feedback such as: I know your company well. Let’s cut to the chase. What I would like to know is - what to invest in?

Questions to use to check if your client has understood

This can be delicate, as you do not want to query your client’s powers of understanding; however, with this you can uncover misunderstandings, which would otherwise get in the way later.

  • You said that you intend to explain this to your wife; what are the important points that you will tell her?
  • Does this make sense to you? What are the elements that are essential to you?

I was once in discussions with a client who wanted the lifelong income guarantee of an annuity. When asked to describe the product in his own words he said the following:

What irritates me is that the income stream stops when I get to a certain age - what I wanted was an income guarantee as long as I am alive.

This was a very clear indication that I had not explained the product properly – or that he had misunderstood. Had the meeting ended on this note, the client would have been lost. Thanks to this invaluable feedback, I could say:

Let’s take another look at this together.

Questions requesting emotional feedback

  • I need to ask you some questions about your health – are you comfortable with that?
  • From what I have told you so far – what is your gut feeling?

I remember once a situation where a client said to my colleague and myself the following:

My lawyer is against your solution, my bank thinks it’s rubbish and my tax advisor told me it’s a waste of my time.

Instead of closing the meeting and going away disheartened, my colleague asked the client the following question:

In your heart of hearts what do you think?

Client (to our surprise): I think it’s the right thing for me to do.

Questions requesting general feedback

  • How do you feel about this so far?
  • What information do you still need?
  • How does this sound to you?
  • Is there anything else that you think I should know?

I remember a client who was generally happy with the direction of our conversation but he had many questions.

What if I want to break off the contract? What if I lose my job and can’t pay the yearly premium?

These were very important concerns and needed to be addressed properly. Due to his invaluable feedback, we were not only able to allay his concerns, but the feedback encouraged us to develop a special information leaflet describing in detail the flexibility of the product. This then provided the transparency, which had evidently hitherto been lacking and we were able to use this for future clients as well. A client’s concerns signal his needs. A ‘no’ to one thing may signal a ‘yes’ to another. Taking the client’s concerns seriously might mean that they lead to a different product altogether. The client may even have changed his mind during the sales process. This happens quite a lot and is a source of frustration and misunderstanding on both sides. Flexibility is required.

So, you thought you wanted a sports car but, given the expense of a car and on reflection, what you really need is a motorbike, is that right?

Questions in the closing phase and after the sale

If the client seems positive, a very good question in the closing phase is this:

Shall we go through the closing papers and see how far we get?

After a sale, a great question is this:

What were the reasons that made you decide to go ahead?

Once the client has articulated the positives for himself in his own words, this cements the sale as well as the relationship. It is great feedback for you too - you may be surprised. And what a great time to then ask for references or referrals!

Keeping control over the process

Relinquishing control over the outcome of the sale does not mean that you relinquish control over the process. The client will expect you to be a professional and to know what you are doing. They will expect you to ask the right questions and to take notes. They will expect you to remember what has been discussed on the phone or at the last meeting. You need to know your product or service inside out. The client will expect you to be prepared, reliable, knowledgeable and competent. Once they have decided to go ahead, they will expect you to have the papers ready and to tell them what practical steps happen next so that you do not waste their time. Having an open dialogue is not an excuse for incompetency. I remember the story of a friend of mine who went to her doctor with a clear case of sinusitis and she knew she needed antibiotics: the doctor – instead of checking her blood or examining her sinuses, put his head in his hands and moaned:

I don’t know - I don’t know what to do.

She didn’t return to him. We all need professionals who know what to do.

Close the sale

Remember to close the sale. Renowned sales masters from the 1980s such as the American, Zig Ziglar pointed out that there are many different ways to ask for a sale. In his book ‘Zig Ziglar’s Secrets of Closing the Sale’ he lays out up to one hundred different ways to close a sale. To name only one of these, alternative choice questions are typically used in the closing phase of a sale. They are designed to narrow the conversation down to get very specific about the details.

  • Will your wife be co-owner of the policy or will you be the policyholder?
  • Do you wish the grey color of your new car to be glossy charcoal or matte gunmetal?
  • Is March 1st a good time to begin or do you need more time, in which case April 1st?

Does a good relationship guarantee sale?

The short answer is – no. Focusing on the relationship – without using any sales know-how – can end up as just that: good relationships, no sales. I have a good colleague who was very much liked by his clients. He had charm and could listen well to them and they liked him a lot. In spite of this, he went through a phase of not closing any new business. Only when a senior colleague went with him to the clients as a neutral observer, did it become clear that he was not asking for the business - he was not closing the sale.

I used to meet a very important client for lunch once a year – in truth there was not much business to discuss, but I wanted to show that I was happy to invest my time in the relationship. This lack of business focus led to a misunderstanding as eventually - to my surprise - he said: We have to stop meeting like this, my wife is beginning to wonder....

A good mix

A good mix of communication methods and sales methods is required. Questions inspired by Rosenberg’s nonviolent communication methods are excellent. However, communication skills need to be hand in glove with, and backed up by, good sales practice and methodology. I would advise anyone in person-to-person sales to invest time in reading the books listed below and to practice either in workshops or with sales colleagues.


*OPEN QUESTIONS (ALSO CALLED OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS)

An open question is an invitation to a conversation, and generally cannot be answered in one word. It is used in counseling, in journalism and in sales. It is a genuinely curious question, inviting the other person to speak about him or herself.

The more you know about your potential client, the easier it is to help them find the right product or solution. The open questions words mainly start with a ‘w’ interrogative pronouns. Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem referencing open questions (it was inspired by the amount of questions his inquisitive daughter was asking about the world).

I keep six honest serving men (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.

CLOSED QUESTIONS (ALSO CALLED CLOSED-ENDED QUESTIONS)

A closed question is an invitation to agree or disagree. It results in a one-word reply, most often in a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. A closed question generally starts with a verb, for example:

  • Have you decided to buy the steamer?
  • Do you like this apartment?

SHUTTING DOWN THE DIALOGUE - OLD SCHOOL SALES METHODS

Sales counsel used to be based on the following advice: a sales situation is like a boxing match. The client is your opponent, who can put obstacles in your way and generally be difficult – so leave nothing to chance.

  1. Avoid closed questions altogether, since they invite a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, and you want to avoid getting a ‘no’.
  2. Use open questions only at the beginning of the sales process to get information
  3. Do a good sales pitch including your USP (unique selling proposition- i.e. what is special about you or your product) while laying out all the amazing benefits.
  4. Shut down any objections and learn set piece replies to deal with them as they occur or preemptively.
  5. Close the sale.

Footnotes / Bibliography / Legal basis

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

  1. Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication, Puddle Dancer Press (U.S.), 2015
  2. Zig Ziglar, Zig Ziglar’s Secrets of Closing the Sale, Berkley Books, (New York), 1982
  3. Rudyard Kipling, Poem: I Keep Six Honest Serving Men, Just So Stories, Macmillan (London),1902

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