Overcoming the fear of asking questionsBY GREG MOORE
“He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever,” so says a famous Chinese proverb.
Indeed, no one should understand the significance of asking questions more than a sales professional.
The ability to ask calculated and value-laden questions is a hallmark of successful salespeople. Top-performing sales professionals are known to ask more questions about the problems that customers face and the impact these problems have on the business.
In Western culture, asking more questions is seen as a sign of positive communication. It enhances conversation between buyer and seller and showcases the seller’s willingness to connect with beyond just closing a sale.
In Asia, sales professionals are less direct and many are in fact afraid of asking questions at the risk of causing offence. A regional sales director from a major enterprise IT company based in Asia expresses his frustration with the reluctance of his salespeople to ask more questions. When he investigated, he found that they were scared that customers might be offended or find them rude or too forward.
How can we help our sales teams to overcome this fear of asking questions? How can we show them that asking well-thought out, needs-based questions, will in fact, create a deeper relationship with the customer?
Below are some ordinary but significant elements that are required by a sales person to turn his prospects into closed deals through building a solid relationship with the customer and an in-depth understanding of their business needs without being intrusive.
Tailor The Questions: The Asian customer needs to be treated differently. More care needs to go into how questions are crafted to take cultural differences into consideration. Most buyers and sellers in Asia are very polite, with courtesy being a very strong cultural imperative.
Some sellers feel uneasy asking questions while engaging with their customers and prospects. “Asking questions” is a risky behaviour, as shared by Neil Rackham, the Creator of SPIN® Selling. With the strong influence of culture and environment in Asia, sellers have every reason to defend themselves by not “offending” the customer. For instance,
Even if the sellers have asked questions, most of the questions are “safe” questions that draw a lot of facts, background or neutral information from the customers. Research shows that these type of ‘Situation Questions’ will be useful for the seller and of no value to the customers. Mentality of the seller falls into two categories:
- Average Seller’s mentality: “Let me ask some safe questions and then give some information to the customers … hopefully the customers will be interested and start to ask more about our products…”
- Excellent Seller’s mentality: “Asking questions is a risky behaviour. I understand and acknowledge that. So, I will ask more focused and effective questions to engage the customers and create need for our products”
Much offence can be avoided by being sensitive to the choice of words. Choosing positive inflection is preferred, as is a more indirect way of probing.
- In some Asian cultures, and, even in Middle East, customers are very sensitive towards words that carry negative connotations, especially the word “problem”, so choose words with care.
Delve into customer requirements: Tailoring questions must coincide with delving into what the customer needs and challenges are, in order to come up with precise questions. The following are some examples of ‘precise questions’:
- After conducting our global research and helping many clients in your industry, some of the key challenges we have identified and helped overcome have been (industry specific examples). How do these resonate with you?
- Through working with several clients in your country we’ve identified that (industry examples) are the key challenges ... how are they impacting you?
- If you don’t mind me asking, what we see in your industry is a major shift from product to solution, but also a clear skills gap which is preventing some companies from making this shift successfully. Do you see this within your organization? How does that concern you?
Develop the right scenario: It may be more advantageous for the seller to ask questions in some situations than in others. Framing questions as a way to improve or upgrade the buyer’s business is essential, and this is where proper and in-depth research and industry examples of what has been successful become very crucial.
For instance, a useful question may be along the lines of the following: “If you don’t mind, may I ask some questions about your business. I would like to better understand where we can potentially help add value? Otherwise, we risk only scratching the surface of the issues and misaligning our offering with your needs which may lead to potentially unsuccessful outcomes for both parties.”
Deal with Doubts: Appropriate examples should be provided to alleviate customers’ doubts immediately rather than deferring concerns until later in the sales process. You can start with an impact statement such as: “What we identified in a complex sale is that excellent sellers are able to overcome concerns and try to resolve them, whilst average performers typically try to sweep them under the rug.”
Right Timing: Ask the right questions at the right time. A sales person does not ask a complete stranger for his or her business. A relationship based on trust and competence needs to be established between buyer and seller. The seller needs to proceed with care, understand the buyer’s psyche, and questions will continue to be asked. Asking for business is the final stage of closing the deal.
Real-Life Stories: Finally, nothing beats experience in painting visions that turn into reality. It is important to have actual examples of sales people attaining huge opportunities, breaking down closed doors, and sealing deals in order to help sellers overcome their fears, and become more confident in asking cogent questions.
Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to use questions as a sales technique, even within Asia. The important thing is to be culturally sensitive to the nuances of the culture, ensure that questions do not necessarily imply anything negative or any wrong-doing on the part of the seller, and ask the right questions at the right time. Taking Asian sensitivities into account can make for more precise, more well-tailored questions, which can still help sellers create strong relationships and collaborate with buyers to solve their problems and close the deal.