If listening is important to developing a consultative selling style, the ability to ask good questions is just as critical. Asking the right sales questions will help to build the customer relationship and advance the sales process. This involves trying to understand what the customer is thinking so that we know how to respond to them and offer them the best solutions to address their concerns. We do this by asking them the right consultative questions to determine:
an understanding of each other
their personal perception
Whether they have a different view
What they think is the most important issue
What their underlying concerns are
The answers to these fairly simple questions helps the sales person to focus their value proposition on things that are important to the customer. The type of insightful questions that the sales person asks conveys a great deal to the customer about the value they can provide, but how?
How to ask the right sales questions
If you think about the news for example, a news reporter demonstrates their experience, their knowledge and their understanding of a situation by asking the right sort of questions to a politician. Similarly, a sales manager can show how much they know about the business by asking insightful questions of a salesperson about where they are in the sales cycle, or the buying cycle. You might have experienced this yourself, where the sales manager can convey a lot about their knowledge, not by telling you, but by asking pertinent questions - and it's the same for the customer - when they see a salesperson who asks insightful questions it shows more than anything else that they understand, and that they know what's happening.
Different types of consultative questions
These are the five consultative questioning types all of which can provide you a great deal of information:
Business value questions
Why is thorough call preparation of such critical importance? Haven’t you already spent enough time in research through the process of reaching out to prospective customers and getting the appointment? The customer has agreed to see you, so must be interested in what you have to sell, surely all you need to do next is to prepare a succinct presentation articulating the benefits and features of what you have to offer to convince the customer to buy from you?
This is not the thought process of the consultative sales person. A consultative sales person isn’t aiming to just make a ‘one time’ sale but to position themselves as someone that understands their customer’s needs, someone to be trusted, someone that the customer can turn to for solutions to their problems. Good call preparation is a key component in building this partnership relationship. (See ‘How to develop a successful sales relationship’) Consultative selling starts with thorough preparation, a preliminary analysis of the customer’s market position and what is happening internally within the company itself.
Understanding the customer's market position
This means determining the customer’s areas of business stress and what their future goals might be; understanding who their customers are and what they expect from them. It includes looking at their competition and why they might be more successful; a review of their channel strategy and how it operates; their competency and utilization of technology; considering their regulatory environment, the economy and how trends and groups like banks, unions and business analysts might impact their business.
Understanding the customer's company
This is about understanding the customer’s company’s key priorities and business issues, researching their organizational structure and business strategy. Do their people have the required skills and systems, to do what it is needed? What is their company structure, is it well aligned to their strategy, what is their corporate culture, their values, are they innovative and likely to be responsive new ideas?
Where to source this information
Web Research is the most obvious source, the customer’s website and also their competition’s which often includes useful information in annual reports and brochures. Look at the press, industry pages relating to their specialty, industry periodicals and the financial press. Consider reference sources like Yahoo finance, Google and Hoover's, business analyst’s reports, credit status reports and ‘Hold, Buy or Sell’ recommendations.
There are several sales apps available to help keep you updated on industry news, competitors in addition to the achievements, projects and thoughts of people you follow, take a look at apps like Cloze and Newsle.
Never forget the importance of talking to people, both in your internal team and in the customer’s external network. Allies in your customer’s company are an essential way of supporting and adding to your research. Also talk to the customer; customers love to talk about their business and if they detect your interest they will more likely share information with you.
The previous posts about how to become a trusted advisor 'The Trusted Advisor' by David H. Maister, Charles H. Green & Robert M. Galford,' discussed how to earn trust, give advice and build relationships. Along side developing these skills, it is important to know how to focus on the other person, to be self-confident, to put your own ego aside, to be curious, to maintain a high degree of inclusive professionalism and always be sincere.
Focus on the other person
“The only way to influence someone is to find out what they want and show them how to get it” Dale Carnegie. To achieve this degree of influence it is essential to be able to focus on the other person giving them what they need and want. It is not about providing them with your knowledge or expertise but more about giving reassurance, helping the client see new approaches and make decisions. The ability to become an empathetic listening is key to this. How well we succeed in this depends on how able we are to truly feel what the other person feels, focusing on them not our own self-promotion. This is a skill that takes years of learning to master but it reaps great rewards.
What is being referred to in the context of being a trusted advisor is the ability to have the self confidence to listen and understand and brainstorm before offering solutions. To put aside the fear that we are squandering critical influencing time by not immediately providing solutions.
This is the ability to focus on the consultative relationship process, the issues at hand and not on any blame or credit attached to it.
To solve other’s problems we need to ask questions, and to listen, in other words to be curious focusing not on what we know but what we don't know. It is our curiosity which creates the situations which allow us to contribute.
By this we mean being able to align with our clients to work collaboratively by acknowledging and engaging them to find solutions rather than just providing them ourselves.
We demonstrate our sincerity to others by caring behavior, by our attention and interest, by our research and by how we listen. When we then respond enthusiastically we invite the other person to explore with us the possibilities and solutions. Being sincere is a critical element of any relationship and of trust. Sometimes we might find ourselves in a situation where it is impossible to relate or be sincere. As long are really sure that you have tried everything you can there are times when you have to accept the situation for what it is and walk away. In relationships there really are only win-win and loose-loose combinations.
Being sincere and building a strong client relationship doesn’t mean you have to become your client’s friend. To be a trusted advisor you have to care and show you care. Being sociable with your client will definitely deepen your understanding of your client’s needs and fears but that doesn’t imply that you have to become their good friend. If you are attentive to your clients needs the effectiveness of the sales process will be enhanced. To earn trust you will need to do this and to be vested in the long-term benefit of the relationship.
Ultimately you are not trying to build a relationship that is simply a means to an end but you are trying to create a partnership that will mean you go on a journey together to resolve your clients needs. What do you think, do you have any other suggestions, we would love to hear from you?!
A trusted advisor is understanding, considerate and sensitive and has developed a strong supportive relationship with their client. From 'The Trusted Advisor' by David H. Maister, Charles H. Green & Robert M. Galford', here are some ideas about how to achieve this.
1. Invest first - to earn you must give
Simply put, this means that the person you wish to influence must first perceive your willingness to investment in the relationship.
2. Demonstrate don’t assert
Look for opportunities to demonstrate that you have something to contribute. Don’t tell them, show them. Before a client meeting determine what you want them to believe about you. For example, to show your preparedness and thoroughness demonstrate this, talk about their recent press releases or blogs, also inviting their opinions. To show your sincerity and empathy randomly call them to simply inquire how they are doing.
3. Look for what’s different not similar
To be able to help someone you need to understand their concerns. Try to create situations where your client feels comfortable sharing their issues. In so doing you will discover what they appreciate and what they respond to, and you will understand how to become more effective.
4. Know when to give advice
Many times what the client initially wants is not your advice but your understanding, approval and support. Give them this affirmation first and they will be far more willing to listen later.
5. Don’t give answers too soon
It is tempting to immediately offer solutions, however often this will not be well received. It is important to first demonstrate that you really understand the situation; ask good questions, listen and invite client feedback. Make them feel their opinion is valued, that they are the decision-maker. Do this before offering your ideas.
6. Clarify what you are being told ~ people rarely say what they mean
Following on from the previous point, asking good questions is essential. Listen carefully and then ask more questions to clarify, people seldom say what they mean, especially initially! Equally you must be clear that you are communicating exactly what you mean, always be open and honest but act with tact and care.
7. Ask for help
Giving advice is a two-way interaction, you will earn more trust if you ask for help, providing your focus remains on the client. In this way you are inviting the client to join with you to resolve their problems, a sure way to build trust.
8. Be interested in the person
One of the best ways to be perceived as a sincere, reliable person, someone your clients would like to work with, is by getting them to talk about themselves. By being interested and asking good questions you will also gather much useful information. For example, if someone says "I think……’' a good response would be ‘"....that is so interesting, why do you think that, what led you to that conclusion?" The more responses you get the more your understanding will grow and the more helpful and acceptable your responses will become. The client will feel you are interested in them and that you understand them. Endeavor to remember the information you gather, take notes! Nothing convinces others more that you are genuine and interested than when at a future occasion you remember facts about them. It is enticing and makes the other person feel you really care.
9. Use Compliments
Others always appreciate sincere, credible compliments, for example: “I hear that others are really impressed with your recent project,” or “People speak so highly of you, the changes you have effected are very noticeable”
10. Show Appreciation
It is a fact that clients rarely appreciate our efforts but that they expect those that work with them to appreciate them. Expressing appropriate appreciation to clients will help cement your relationships.
These are just some relationship building ideas. What have your experiences taught you? What ideas might you be able to share with others? We are always interested to learn from you!