Customer Didn’t Answer Your Excellent Question? Don’t Worry

We all know that good questions can uncover information that helps us in the sales process, but Dave Brock ‘s article on sales questioning this morning makes the important point that “the real power of effective questioning is how it helps the customer.” Questions help the customer by getting them to clarify the issues they’re trying to address and to think of things differently.

As he says, “the whole tone of a sales call changes when the customer says, ‘I’ve never considered that before.’” Dave is absolutely right, and it’s a wonderful feeling when that happens. I think back to a call I made to a prospect just to set up an appointment. He told me I was wasting my time, because they already had a sales process. When I asked him what percentage of his sales force were actively using their process, he paused and said, “Maybe we should meet to talk about that.”

But it’s also important to note that you should not expect good questions—even your very best questions—to always have an immediate visible effect. It’s not highly likely that the customer will say, “Wow, I never thought about it that way before!” In fact, the most likely reaction to this type of challenge question is either silence or some sort of combative answer. If you do get this reaction, do not think that your question has failed in its intent.

First of all, no one likes a know-it-all, especially when they’re right.  Even if only to save face, the customer is probably not going to give you the immediate satisfaction of admitting you’re right.

Second, opinions are comfortable, and changing them is hard. Victor Hugo said “there is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come.” The corollary to that sentiment is that ideas take time.

Put yourself in their position: Have you ever been asked a question that forced you to rethink your opinion, or at least to look at your situation through a different perspective? It probably didn’t feel too good at the time, did it? Long-held opinions don’t get changed instantly because of a single flash of insight, especially when that insight comes from someone else. They take time to work. Sometimes a great question is like a seed that plants itself in the customer’s brain and gradually takes root. By the time the first shoots are visible, the root system has taken a firm grip on the soil beneath.

Finally, the more astute buyers won’t let on that they’re excited about your idea because it weakens their negotiating position.

In fact, if the customer is too quick to come around to your point of view, maybe they’re simply the impressionable type who will change their minds back just as quickly when someone else challenges your challenge.

So don’t think that your excellent question has failed if the customer does not react in the way you hoped. They may need time to think about what you said, or they may need to talk about it internally. Your goal is to open their mind to a different perspective; don’t re-close it by pressing too hard for an answer.

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