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Secret to sales success: ask better questions

Posted by Arjun Moorthy

Sep 22, 2012 4:12:00 PM

Many people think that to be good at sales you need to have “the gift of gab”, i.e. be able to talk and present well; generally be affable.  This is important but I realized a while back that even more important was the ability to be a great listener.   As my boss, Brian Halligan so succinctly put it “we have two ears and one mouth for a reason.”  However, I learned a couple weeks ago that even great listening skills is not what separates average sales people from great sales people.  The key is asking the right questions to lead the conversation where you want it to go.  And this is the skill I’ve been working on with my coach, Rick Roberge, the last couple weeks.

jeopardy alex trebek

Rick has given me a lot of advice these past few weeks but his singular, most impactful advice, was this: “whatever you want to say, find a way to ask a question instead.”  i.e. if I want to say “our software can help you get more leads” ask instead “would having software that gets you more leads be important to you?”

This tactic, cheekily called the Jedi-mind trick by some people in HubSpot's sales team, is brilliant in two regards:

  1. Asking smart questions ensures that you aren’t making assumptions about what’s important to your customer, even though it may seem obvious to you.
  2. Asking smart questions gets buy-in from your customer rather than having a solution thrust upon them which, even if they buy, may not mean they’ll actually use your product as intended leading to a poor outcome for all.

Initially I felt this approach was tedious.  I would think “can’t I just tell them the answer to their obvious problem?  This question approach is just incredibly slow!”  But I soon saw how the question-based approach made my meeting be much less one-sided than many previous meetings.  Indeed, in the past I’ve left meetings thinking “that went great” only to have no follow-up from the customer or partner because I never really found out what they thought.

Even more brilliant about the question-driven approach though is that you stop seeming like the “know-it-all” to your customer.  I always thought that coming across as smart was key to building relationships but Rick explained a very interesting point about this: “coming across as smart might, in some cases, make people feel uncomfortable and insecure about themselves.”   This is unlikely to help build a strong relationship.  For a relative nerd like myself, to “dumb down” things seemed gimmicky but this isn’t the right way to look at it.  Rather this approach tacitly underscores that you know far less than you think and should actually get feedback and validate what you think you know.

Indeed this is the part I get stuck on the most.  Even now I’m so eager to tell my prospect what I know, perhaps because I’m insecure and want to establish my intelligence, or because I think I know exactly what they need.  Whatever the reason, this is an impediment that is most important to overcome in my quest to get better at sales.

Side-bar: The question-driven approach also reduces my desire to rush to a demo of our product.  This used to be my preferred approach as I thought “the software is so great, you’ll just want to partner/buy once you see it.”  That seldom worked in the past and now I know why.

Trusted contacts – part 2

In my last post I spoke about measuring Business Development efforts via metrics like measuring the number of trusted contacts. However, I was stuck on what constituted a trusted contact.  I recently had lunch with Jeetu Mahtani, another student of Rick’s, and he suggested a definition I really liked: a trusted contact gives you a metric she really cares about. 

Jeetu had another profound addition on this front regarding who can become a trusted contact.  He said: “every contact can be a trusted contact.”   This takes away the thought process of “is this person worth the time as they are low level or wrong job role” and turns it into “how can I build trust with this person, right here, right now.”  Very smart.

Topics: feedback, training

Career Advice I Wish I Knew Earlier 

Hello.  I started this blog to distribute some of the best career advice I have been given over the many jobs I've had.  I've been fortunate to work for and with some great bosses like Francis DeSouzaNancy Kamei and Rick Roberge, and some unique companies, like The Boston Consulting Group, that invest heavily in making each employee a success even after leaving the firm.

The advice and training I received here stands in sharp contrast to my experiences with some not-so-great bosses and companies I've also worked for.  I'm continualy amazed at how valuable good advice has been in my career so I hope to pass on the good advice, and insights from mistakes I've made, via this blog. 

Thanks in advance for your comments, particularly when you can improve upon the ideas posted.

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