"Sellin’ ain’t tellin’, askin’ is." I heard this simple but true homily years ago when working in Texas. Merrill Lynch spent thousands of dollars and six months in California and New York on sophisticated courses and seminars to train me to sell stocks and bonds. Yet, over the years this bit of country wisdom from Texas has been one of the most powerful and useful lessons I’ve ever learned. To be successful in sales, you must master the art of asking questions. WHY? One of the most obvious reasons you ask questions is to acquire information. The conscientious professional will spend a great deal of time and effort to learn about their client. The person asking questions is always in control of a discussion. This control can be used gracefully to lead and direct the client to a successful outcome or it can be abused. As a professional, it is your responsibility to serve the client in a thorough and proper manner. It is impossible to do this if you do not have enough accurate information. The most efficient way to get the necessary information is to ask questions. There is a big difference between efficient and effective communication. Some sales people believe a day of golf is a great way to solidify a new relationship. It's not. Your goal should be "frequency of contact." Frequent short contacts and encounters will build stronger relationships and make you more memorable to your client. If you are new in business a good way to develop this habit is using a checklist. First, list all your clients and prospects. Next, make a list of all the ways you can make contact: phone, e-mail, fax, letter, lunch, appointment, racquetball, golf…the list is endless. There are numerous software programs that will help you. Review this list at least weekly to see who you have forgotten, to plan the next mailing campaign and/or benchmark your actual activities to your goals. How often should you make contact? That depends on the relationship and the nature of your business. Everyone in your database should hear from you at least quarterly. Clients get very annoyed if they only hear from you when you want to make a sale or collect a check. Obviously, the goal is to graciously ask questions during these encounters. Art comes into play in the manner that you ask the questions. No one likes to feel like they are in a deposition. Remember, you are striving to build long-term profitable relationships. The real key is to understand how the client FEELS about certain issues and what are the emotional dynamics of the decision making process. How do you get to this next level of understanding? The answer is, asking more questions. Questions are the keys to unlock the vaults of information, needs, wants and emotions. As you master the art of asking questions you will gracefully control the discussions with your clients. As Martha Stewart would say, "It’s a good thing." WHO ARE YOU? It’s time to go from preaching to meddling. The most important person you have to ask questions, is yourself. Why do you do what you do? What are your motivators? How can you improve? What are your values? Is your behavior consistent with the things you say that you believe? The best test of ‘who are you’ is the quality and quantity of referrals you receive. As you build relationships with others are they able to determine your beliefs by how you behave? They don’t need to have a long explanation about the history and values of your company. They just listen to what other people say about you and your reputation. Clients will TRUST a person who they believe has integrity. Without trust it is impossible to elicit honest feedback from a client. To learn a specific process on how to build trust on purpose, refer to Values-Based Selling; The Art of Building High-Trust Client Relationships by Bill Bachrach (at this time it is written for Financial Services Professionals). WHO CARES? There are at least four groups of people who are critical to your professional development. They are co-workers, centers of influence, vendors and your clients. How much do you care about each of these groups? 1. Co-workers Your co-workers are a vital part of your professional team. If you don’t have time to show your co-workers that you care about them, in time they will show you that they don’t care about you either. The best way to show interest and concern is to ask them questions. The depth and quality of the question you are comfortable asking a co-worker will be a reflection of the quality of your mutual relationship. As you become astute at listening you realize how much you can tell about someone by the type of questions they ask. Peter Drucker spends a major part of his time during lectures at Claremont Graduate School teaching students the value of "asking the right question." The depth of the question shows the depth of understanding a person has of a problem. 2. Centers of Influence Centers of influence are those people who respect you and whose position or experiences naturally enable them to send you a continual flow of referrals. They are the most valuable kind of marketing and public relations you can ever have. When you ask them questions it is an opportunity to show your interest and concern for them. 3. Vendors and Colleagues Vendors and other professional colleagues are also critical to your development. Do vendors and sales representatives from your suppliers refer you accounts? Sure, it helps to refer them business too, but develop the habit of asking good questions and listening well. 4. Clients The fourth group is clients. Surely you have heard of the "silent close." Well, as a professional speaker I have learned a new appreciation for silence. It is not effective to talk nonstop and at a fast pace. People need time to process information. After you have said something significant or asked a good question, be silent, let them process the thought. When dealing with your clients, or any one else, you must mentally control your impulse to fill long pregnant pauses of silence with your own voice. Silence is a beautiful thing. Attorneys are trained to never ask a question unless they already know the answer. The more you study people the better you will get at making accurate assessments. A new book that discusses this idea is Reading People, by Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, Ph.D. and Mark Mazzarella. They make the following observation, "We have to watch the way people behave toward others if we want to get the fullest sense of who they are. All the other factors covered in this book: appearance, body language, environment, voice, even the words people speak-must be viewed alongside their actual behavior in the real world." To master the art of asking questions you have to become a student of people. This takes time. It’s not a matter of memorizing a few good questions. It’s the ability to read or see what is going on and have the confidence to ask the big question. One of the tricks to help you in this area is to do your homework before you meet with a client. Basic information gathering can go on for a good 15 to 20 minutes. Examples of these types of questions are below. Needs assessment: How do you manage your business/clients? What have you done in the past that’s been most successful? Any mistakes you’d like to avoid in the future? What are you looking for in a _____________? Wants assessment: How do you feel about ________________? (Use the word ‘feel’ with women & they’ll tell you what they think) (Use the word ‘think’ with men & they’ll tell you how they feel) Are you comfortable with your current growth plans? (If yes or no, ask-How come? Tell me more? Could you explain that to me?) Tell me a bit about where you plan to be in ten years? Understanding of motivators in a business environment: How did you get to this position? What do you enjoy most about your job? What do your people do especially well? What’s working well for you? Why do you work here? The pace slows and specific questions are asked about areas where known problems existed. "What’s your employee turnover like?" "How do you measure customer satisfaction?" "How’s your cashflow?" "Could you explain that a little bit more?" By being patient, asking simple questions that directly related to their situation and then using the power of silence and intently listening, meaningful dialogue will be realized and ultimately great results are achieved. Listen, Listen, Listen There are many types of questions. Open ended versus closed, leading questions, hypothetical and the list goes on. Then there are the levels of questions. You need to get to a person’s emotions and prejudices. As you study people you will continue to develop more understanding. Additionally, there are two critical ingredients you will want to master. The first is trust. You have to build a pattern of behavior that will allow a person to trust you. Trust comes from asking good questions, consistent behavior and keeping your commitments. The second is empathy. This relates to how much you really care. It does not matter what level of education a person has they seem to know if another person is real or not. Most decisions are made from an emotional frame of reference. Emotions are the trigger in the decision making process. Emotions and feelings are not right or wrong. Feelings are based on past experiences. The good news is that feelings can change when a person goes through new experiences. Your questions can be powerful. The way you use questions is important. What are your intentions with asking the questions? Do you have personal integrity? Can you be trusted? How well do you understand and read people? How well do you listen? Your ability to put all these elements together will determine if you are an artist. Effective communication requires more than talent. It involves trust, understanding, empathy and resolution. It is an art that can be learned and developed.
David Rohlander is an international speaker, consultant and author. David works with leaders and management teams to enhance communication and produce increased bottom line results. David established DGR Communications in 1979 to train leaders to communicate. Nearly a decade with Merrill Lynch, personally developing commercial and residential real estate, owning a travel business and being a former combat fighter pilot gives David a unique perspective. For more information about David’s presentations,
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