June 3, 2014

One of My Favorite Probing Questions: I am Just Curious, Why Did You Invite Me in?

In the past few weeks I’ve led several sessions for various clients around structuring and conducting more effective sales calls. It’s such an interesting topic to tackle because so many salespeople have become complacent about how they prepare for and run an initial/discovery, face-to-face meeting with a prospective customer. I find this is particularly true for seasoned veterans who’ve been selling for a long time. They take for granted that the call will go well, or they just see it as old hat — been there, done that. 

Frankly, this laisser-faire approach to sales calls makes me crazy. Today, we often have to work so hard to get in front of a high-value potential client. It’s not easy to earn their time, so when we do secure that initial face-to-face meeting we so desperately want, shouldn’t we desire to be as crisp and effective as possible?

Recently I’ve been doing significant writing and coaching around an issue that’s prevalent across of range of my clients: the sellers (even high-level executives who are involved in selling) are repeatedly treated like nothing more than a vendor by the prospect. And from what I’ve observed, it is often the approach of the salesperson and the way he/she conducts sales calls that contribute to the low view/vendor status ascribed to them by the prospect.

While these salespeople yearn to be perceived as experts, consultants, value-creators and professional problem-solvers, it’s their own words, poor call structure and lame attempt at discovery (probing) that doom them to vendor status in the eyes of the buyer.

This is a big topic and I’m sure many of you related to what I was describing as you read those last few sentences. I promise you’ll be hearing more from me on this “vendor or value-creator” issue in the near future. But for today, let’s spend just a minute looking at how great probing questions (one in a particular) asked the right way, can completely reposition the seller in the mind of the buyer, and change the dynamic of the sales call.

I don’t think many would argue that being armed with an arsenal of great question for prospects in an essential prerequisite for a successful sales call. There are entire books and selling systems devoted to the art and science of asking sequences of probing questions. I dedicated a significant chunk of Chapter 11 in New Sales. Simplified. to the four categories of questions I encourage salespeople to master (Personal, Strategic/Directional, Specific Pain/Opportunity-Seeking and Sales Process).

Why have sales authors devoted so many pages to the topic of probing questions? Honestly, it’s because most sellers don’t do this well. They’re unprepared. They prefer pitching to probing. They lack the tone, EQ and general business acumen to come off appearing both educated and sincere. But even more important, we write so much about probing because we know that excellent probing is not only a key to conducting great sales calls, but it helps buyers perceive sellers as the “consultants” we so desperately want to be. I often tell clients that you can accomplish more great selling with the questions you ask than by how well you present.

A couple years ago I was on a sales call along with my client CEO. This is a client where at times, I play surrogate sales executive and even carry their business card with my name on it. I’d occasionally go on sales calls as an active participant. Part of the intent was to model excellent sales call structure for the executives of this firm. But there were other benefits. When I played the role of senior salesperson on calls, it also freed up the CEO to play founder/CEO/subject matter expert, while I carried the burden setting up the meeting, sharing parts of their story and even asking some key probing questions. During a meeting with a particularly challenging prospect we were struggling to make headway. At some point, I finally just paused hoping to alter the momentum. Then I asked one of my all-time favorite questions.

“I’m just curious, why did you invite us in to visit with you?”

The prospect didn’t answer right away. But my client and I remained patient as the awkward silence built. Eventually, the prospect let out an audible exhale (the good kind), and began to open up about what was going on in his world. Honestly, it was a thing of sales beauty. And from that point on, my client tried to incorporate that question early on in every sales call he made.

I love that question. I’ll ask it at various times depending on how I feel the meeting is going. Sometimes, to be funny, I’ll ask it right up front, particularly if it’s one of those meetings that took months and months to secure. There’s nothing better than cracking a confident smile, looking a senior-level person who you’ve been chasing forever in the face and asking, “So, I’m just curious, why’d you invite me in?”  It’s even better when the prospect is honest or blunt in their response. I’ve had executives smile back and say something to the affect of “you’re kidding, right? You’ve been beating down this door for a year — phone calls, voicemails, birthday cards, referrals. I finally relented just so you’d stop.” 

But you see, important senior-level people don’t’ give meetings for charity. And they don’t meet with people out of pity or because the salesperson tried hard. They accept meetings because they’re curious, because they know they’ll get value from the time invested, or because they think you may be able to help them. That’s why that question works. And when you get the funny or blunt answer I just described above, without hesitation, come back strong with: “Yup, it took some pretty serious effort to get you to agree to visit with me. But you still invited me in. So what’s going in your world that you decided it was worth your time to meet with me? And what would you like to get out of our conversation today?” And then zip your mouth. Say nothing. Nada. The moment that prospect starts to answer your question, you won. You’re now in the consultant’s seat. He/she is about to tell you why you’re there.

  • What are your favorite questions to ask prospects?
  • Do you have a few go-to questions that can alter the direction of a meeting or get you out of a jam?
  • Are you learning what you need to on sales calls, or just rushing into your presentation?
  • Do you ask such great questions that prospects perceive you as an expert, consultant and value-creator? Or like so many in sales, does your approach doom you simply to vendor-status?