By Kathy Sisk
The first four of the twelve steps allow you to reach the point where you can begin to uncover your prospect’s wants and needs. Step Five is the open-ended question-and-answer – or probing – time. In this phase, your prospects can communicate their personal wants and needs to you. Aside from eliciting needs, you will also be able to create wants and needs for your prospects, while qualifying them in the process. Later on, you will learn how to adapt this step to take control of your prospect and narrow down any objections that may arise.
Through probing, you will obtain information that will enable you to better determine the specific needs of your prospect. This will allow you to promote your ideas and information in a manner that will appear to be tailor-made.
Ask Open-Ended Questions: In the probing step, you must ask open-ended questions and be ready to offer solutions or answers quickly, but without taking up too much of the prospect’s time. You cannot communicate effectively if you do not create opportunities for your prospect to speak freely. Do not ask closed-ended questions that limit responses and sound like an interrogation. The prospect can become irritated quickly. A closed-ended question might be, “Do you provide your people with training?” An open-ended question might be, “What type of training do you provide?”
An answer to an open-ended question is more than a simple yes or no. You can gather insightful information from your prospect’s response that allows you to highlight individual concerns and needs in your notes. You can later sell your prospects’ own ideas back to them when you begin to promote your products or services.
Keep in mind that not all open-ended questions are productive, and some might even sound threatening. A threatening question would be, “Why are you not interested?” A more positive way of drawing information from your prospect is to ask, “What are some of your concerns?” The art of asking questions doesn’t come easily, but once you are aware of this, you will be more careful in your phrasing.
An open-ended question contains one of the following words: who, what, where, why, when, how, explain, describe, or share. Open-ended questions allow your prospects to do most of the talking, which gratifies their egos (who doesn’t like talking about themselves?), satisfies an important need to express their wants, and helps to break through the fear that tends to develop during the course of prospecting.
Probing with open-ended questions helps you to learn about your prospect, which will later allow you to customize your descriptions of features, functions, and benefits (Step Seven) to the prospect’s needs.
Limit Questions: How many questions are too many to ask? Your initial call objective – whether you are conducting market research, sending information, or making a one-call close (setting an appointment or making a sale in one call) – will determine how many questions you should ask.
A good rule-of-thumb is to ask three to five questions, designed to lead you into sharing features and benefits. Asking prospects more than five questions increases the risk of irritating them and creating further barriers, especially if you are trying to close on your first contact.
If, however, you are conducting market research or calling with the intent of sending information, you can ask up to ten questions, provided that your Purpose (Step Four) indicates this intent. Use your listening skills to better determine your prospect’s patience level.
Qualifying Questions: By asking probing questions, you accomplish three functions: qualifying your prospects, establishing their wants, and creating a need for your product or service. The first one or two questions you ask should be qualifying questions, such as, “What are your company’s primary methods of marketing your products and services?”
In the qualifying process, the prospect’s status is identified, and a determination is made about whether the prospect is a candidate for your products and services. Based on the prospect’s response, you can determine what your next question will be. This strategically allows you to individualize each presentation.
Establish Their Wants: The next set of probing questions is designed to establish their wants. This is essential to determine the level of motivation of your prospect. This will give you the ammunition you require to fulfill the needs of your prospects in Step Seven, Selling. Here are some examples:
- “How effective is your outbound department, and what would you like to see improved?”
- “What motivated you to select that particular product?”
- “Now that they have been servicing you for some time, how do you feel about their products, their service, and their rates today, compared with when you started?”
When you have firmly established your prospect’s wants, you need to strategically plan your final probing question. This is where you create a need that moves your presentation into Step 6 and allows you to continue with the balance of your presentation.
Creating a Need: When creating a need, you’re offering prospects something they haven’t yet considered. You can create a need simply by asking the right qualifying questions and asking an establishing-their-wants question. It’s more effective, however, to ask a creating-a-need question that cannot be answered by your prospect. This serves to arouse interest and allow your prospects to look at their situations in a different light.
A different perspective, perhaps something the prospects might have missed, might be the incentive they need to redirect their thinking to you and your company. For example, you might ask, “What steps have you taken to evaluate your current supplier to determine [pause] that you’re getting the quality you are entitled to and at the most competitive rate?” Choose only one creating-a-need question, and it must be your final question.
Be sure to ask the questions in order: first, qualify; then, establish wants; and last, create a need. You will not be able to create the need without establishing their wants, and you cannot establish their wants unless you’ve qualified your prospects. Creating-a-need questions are a bit lengthy. However, with proper pacing, voice inflection, and strategic pauses, they have a powerful effect. The power of this question is one reason that you want to save it for last.
If you’re unable to create a need, it will be difficult to continue with the rest of the steps. However, if this occurs, you have other possible options, such as sending information and then following up to try again to create a need. You may also determine that a particular prospect is not a viable candidate for your product or service.
Go Deeper: It is possible that your prospect may respond to your create-a-need question in a negative manner, such as, “I just evaluated our training department this week,” or “We just finished conducting an analysis of our production methods.”
How do you approach this response? This is an opportunity to try to create a deeper need for your product or service. You can do this by continuing to ask probing questions. To create a deeper need you first need to qualify the prospect’s answer and then ask another creating-a-need question for which the prospect may not have a viable answer. For example:
Agent: “What were the results of your evaluation?”
Prospect: “We determined that our department was functioning just fine.”
Now ask a create-a-need question for which the prospect may not have an answer.
Agent: “What steps have you taken to secure (pause) a second opinion from a company that would offer you additional information from a fresh perspective, to ensure (pause) that you are maximizing your efforts in the most profitable way possible?”
Your prospect is now most likely to respond with, “I haven’t.” This approach serves to reinforce the need for your service, allowing you to continue with your presentation.
One very crucial guideline is that you cannot continue past Step Five unless you create a need for what you have to offer. Continuing with your presentation when you haven’t created a need will encourage unnecessary objections and reduce the likelihood of an opportunity to close the sale.
We will cover more about probing next time, before moving on to Step Six.
Kathy Sisk is president of Kathy Sisk Enterprises Inc.
[From Connection Magazine – March 2012]