Even though open- and closed-ended questions are part of every sales professional's training, it's surprising how often we ask closed-ended questions without meaning to. Here are some simple rules that will help you distinguish between the two types of questions:
What, how (except for "how much" or "how many"), and why will result in open questions and more informative answers.
Starting a question with the word(s) "did you," "can you," "where," "when," and "who" invite shorter, less informative answers.
Closed-ended questions aren't bad when used properly. Just check to make sure you're asking the question you think you are asking.
Nothing makes a teleconference or Web meeting harder to listen to than a presenter who stumbles to find the right words, instead using a lot of filler words like "umm," "ahh," and "so."
While we use these fillers to help kill time while we think of our next thought, they don't allow us to put our best foot forward. Here are a few tips that will help you to reduce the fillers and find the right words:
Do not fear silence, which always seems much longer to you than to your audience. A brief pause can help you gather your thoughts before you continue.
Create a list of attendees and deliver a single thought or sentence to each attendee, just as you would use your eye-brain control with an audience that's in the room with you.
Speak louder than you normally would on the phone. This is a presentation after all, and the phone's internal works will adapt. Speaking loudly makes you more aware of each "um" and "er," so you'll use them less.
As much as we wish it were, the customer's need is almost never an empty space shaped just like the product you are selling. The need is there, but its shape is difficult to discern, for both you and the customer. Furthermore, it is entangled in a mess of issues that may or may not be apparent to you or even the customer. Untangling those Issues can be one of your most critical selling techniques. The only way to do it is with probing, open-ended questions and active listening. Here are five common issues to look for.
Seasonality. The customer probably has a selling season and a buying season. But those are only the beginning. How are your customer’s goals affected by flu season, summer driving season, daylight saving time, trade show season, the Academy Awards, or baseball season? There may be reasons for urgency that the customer isn’t fully aware of.
Project Phase. For better or worse, corporations accomplish their projects in phases. What phase is the customer in now? When does it end? When does the next one begin? Chances are the customer is preoccupied with the current phase. It’s up to you to foresee the end of this phase and the start of the next. You can be a help and a support to the customer by bringing the next phase into focus. And the next phase may well have opportunities for you – if not with the current customer, with a customer in the same company.
Startup. If the customer is responsible for a new initiative, she is under great pressure to produce results by some deadline. This pressure may external (i.e., from a boss or a committee), or it may be entirely internal. Either way, it’s still pressure. If you are hoping to supply products or services for some sort of new initiative, probe to find out how long ago the customer was given responsibility for it. If you can help her show results before the deadline, you can relieve some of that pressure.
Unspent Budget. Unspent money sounds like an accomplishment, but it can be one of a business professional’s most serious problems. In government and in nonprofit organizations, unspent money usually implies unfinished mission. In business, it means costs were lower than expected for the customer to do his work, and he’ll likely face a reduction in next year’s budget.
New Leadership. If your customer has recently assumed a new leadership position, she is dealing with a particularly subtle issue. She knows she should make no immediate changes in the way the organization does business, but she is under pressure (external or internal) to show that she was the best choice for the job. That means generating results. How can your product or service help her achieve results without disruption?
Put your selling techniques to use by asking open-ended questions about the customer’s business. Then listen closely for clues to seasonality, new or ongoing initiatives, new responsibilities, budgeting, or changes in leadership. When you detect the presence of one of these issues, probe deeper with open-ended questions and think about how your product or service can help the customer resolve the issue.
At Communispond, our Socratic Selling Skills® solution teaches the critical selling techniques of active listening and probing dialogue. When you know how to untangle a customer’s issues, you’re well on the way to meeting the customer’s needs.
What would you think if your doctor handed you a prescription the minute you entered her office, then asked you what was wrong? Some customers feel the same way after a sales visit.
Your products or services are the prescription for what the customer needs. Taking the time to understand those needs builds credibility and trust. Asking a lot of questions and understanding the customers' needs is crucial to being seen as a consultant, not just another vendor.
One way to keep your presentations short and interesting is to imagine you're pitching a story to a magazine. Magazine editors, who are notorious for being hard to impress, won't generally accept an article about a topic if they feel it hasn't been properly researched and made specific enough. Magazine editors prefer titles that will draw readers in. Therefore, the easiest way to their hearts is to put your points in the title-a thought you should remember as you create your PowerPoint presentations. Following are some examples:
- Three ways to shorten PowerPoint presentations.
- Are you a bloomer or a wall flower?
- Eat sugar and live longer (OK, these are examples, but we can dream).
When you can narrow your point down to a short title like this, it's almost a given that your presentation will be shorter, more focused, and, ultimately, more interesting to your audience.
So what story are you telling today?
Most people believe that communication skills consist of clarifying a message and delivering it in a memorable way. This is the cable news model of communication. Blow-dried personalities deliver to people sitting in front of their televisions catchy phrases reinforced by clever graphics and selected video sequences. In the cable news process, the sender delivers a message, and the audience receives it, participating to the same extent that an asparagus participates in gardening.
If your communication goal is simply to inform, then the cable news-asparagus model of communication may be perfectly suitable. But nobody was ever persuaded of anything by cable news. If you want to change another person’s point of view, your communication skills need to go beyond message clarity and skilled delivery. Keep in mind that the workplace is not cable news. It is a setting where nearly all of your success depends on your ability to change other people’s points of view.
If you’re going to change anyone’s point of view, you need to recognize that communication is not simply an event in which a sender delivers a message to a receiver. In true communication, the sender and receiver work together work out the meaning the message. Each of them takes part in the process. Communication skills emphasize dialogue.
Many people approach what they believe to be dialogue by trying to make their position sound as reasonable as possible. But every point of view is reasonable to the person who holds it. You will never be able to show another person your point of view is more reasonable than theirs. So the first step in bringing a person around to your point of view is to first understand theirs. Ultimately, your goal is not to change their point of view, but to show them how they can be committed to their point of view by adopting yours.
This requires planning, legwork, and imagination. Effective communication begins before you utter the first syllable or type the first character. Communication skills involve message clarity and effective delivery, but they also include research, planning, listening, and imaginative empathy. Find out in advance whatever you can about your “receiver” and begin the communication process by probing for their viewpoint. You need to understand their point of view if you’re going to work with it.
In Communispond’s communication skills program, Mastering Interpersonal Communication™, participants learn to achieve their communication goals through a six-step process:
- Open a discussion.
- Recognize the other person’s viewpoint.
- Give your information clearly.
- Create clarity and understanding.
- Brainstorm to overcome obstacles.
- Ensure the next steps are taken.
In addition, the learners learn about their own core personality traits, the first step toward understanding the core personality traits of others. They learn to adapt their actions and style to promote message effectiveness. When you truly recognize the collaborative nature of communication, you become a better and more persuasive communicator and a master of communication skills.
When your communication skills are based on the collaborative nature of communication, you are not only a more skilled communicator, you’re a more effective team member. In organizations with truly effective communication, the focus of the workplace shifts from problems to solutions.
Exchanging business cards is as natural to the sales process as breathing. It's amazing how many sales professionals, then, exhibit poor business card etiquette. Without getting into the specifics of doing business in other cultures, here are some general tips:
Keep your business cards in good condition — don't hand out crumpled or scribbled-on cards.
Look carefully at any card you receive — not only does it reflect well on you for paying attention, but there may also be important information on it that will further the conversation.
Hand the card toward the other person so they can read it, not upside down or sideways.
After receiving a card, put it somewhere safe so that it won't get lost or crumpled. Respect for the card shows respect for the prospect.
If you have ever wondered how to raise your PowerPoint presentation to the level of an art form, check out Pecha Kucha, which originated in Japan as a discipline to keep architects' presentations from turning into "death by PowerPoint." The format is simple:
Therefore, a PowerPoint presentation-no matter how complex-will never last more than six minutes, 40 seconds. People are now using it as almost an art form, creating elaborate presentations that fit in the constraints of the format.
What's more, there are now Pecha Kucha meetings and competitions held around the world. Even if you're not a competitive person, use this discipline to make your presentations leaner and shorter.
Here's a template for a story. See if it sounds familiar. A child is raised by a kindly family in humble circumstances and they never tell him about his real parents. When the child nearly reaches adulthood, he performs some symbolic act, such as pulling a sword from a stone, and is revealed as the son of the king (or a god) and the rightful leader of his people. This is a story that turns up again and again in different human cultures. There are at least four variations of it in ancient Greek mythology, and it still reappears regularly in Hollywood movies. This story reinforces the human desire to believe in born leaders, which can make life difficult for those of us involved in leadership training.
Are leaders born, or are they made? If you have been reading this blog regularly, you know my position on the question. I have said before, “At Communispond, we view leadership training as skills training. There are a handful of skills that, when performed before an audience, are perceived as charisma.” Furthermore, anyone can demonstrate leadership in the right situation and with the right preparation.
One of the things that complicates the leadership question is disagreement over what makes a leader. We know that all leaders communicate well and that they influence people. Beyond that, however, there are about as many kinds of leaders as there are leaders, which makes it difficult to pin down their personality traits. That’s why leadership training should be open to anyone.
At Communispond, we have successfully trained enough leaders to know that leadership can be learned. And anyone else involved in leadership training will tell you the same thing. They wouldn’t be involved in leadership training if they didn’t believe it.
Now the leadership training community, however, has a scientific finding to work with. A handful of researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Toronto did a study (published in an academic journal, The Leadership Quarterly, in 2006) to find out how much of a person’s leadership is genetic. The link will take you to an abstract of the article and a paywall, if you want to buy the whole thing. By studying pairs of identical twins (who share 100% of their DNA) and comparing them to pairs of fraternal twins (who share only 50%), they were able to isolate the influence of genes. They concluded that genetics account for 30% of a person’s leadership qualities and that environmental factors (i.e., a person’s experiences) account for 70%. These researchers didn’t get into the weeds of measuring leadership traits. They compiled mini-biographies of the people in the study (there were hundreds of pairs) and gave them leadership scores based on their leadership experiences.
So if you’re engaged in leadership training, you’ve got 70% of a learner’s capacity to work with. This squares with what we’ve observed in our Executive Communication Coaching™ program, which trains leaders to effectively communicate strategy and vision. So let’s stop talking about “born leaders.” Nobody brings more than 30% of their final leadership ability to the table. The other 70% of their ability comes from having the experiences (including training) that create leaders.
As sales move from selling commodities to solutions, the deals become more and more complicated. Sales professionals often can't know all the details or answer every customer question. Here are some guidelines for calling in help:
- Try to arrange peer-to-peer calls. If they're bringing the VP of IT to the meeting, don't bring in the intern to answer questions.
- Do your best to brief the subject matter expert thoroughly, and have them on the call from beginning to end, so that they don't repeat or contradict information you've already given.
- Make sure that your support team understands where you are in the sales process, so they don't make assumptions that can backfire.
You have a team behind you-use them. Just use them wisely.