Understanding the Sales Cycle: Uncovering Needs

John Tabita

According to a recent customer survey by RAIN Group, these are the three top reasons buyers become annoyed during the sales process and refuse to buy:

  1. They didn’t listen to me
  2. They didn’t understand my needs
  3. They talked too much

I once read that, when you go on a job interview, there’s a way to gauge your likelihood of being hired. If you did most of the talking, your chances are slim, because you’re perceived as a blabbermouth. On the other hand, if the interviewer did most of the talking, you’re perceived as secretive. What’s the ideal balance between talking and listening? According to the author, it’s about 50/50.

I’m not sure how close that magic number applies to a sales situation, but considering that selling is like going on job interviews all day long, I’d guess it’s near the mark. If you’re going to err on either side of that 50 percent, I’d err on the side of listening more.

Prescription without Diagnosis is Malpractice

Fact-finding or needs analysis is a crucial component of the sales cycle. How can you prescribe a solution unless you first understand what the problem or need is? And how can you learn what you need to know you if don’t ask questions… and listen to the answers? Inexperience sales people often feel they must take control of the conversation by doing most of the talking. But the reality is that “he who asks the questions controls the conversation.” Skeptical? Then try it for yourself. Next time you find yourself in a conversation that’s lagging, ask a question. Then ask a follow-up question. Keep doing that and you’ll find you can direct the conversation quite easily and naturally.

Ask Smart Questions not Dumb Ones

Smart question: “I saw on your website that you provide ABC and 123 enterprise solutions to medium manufacturing facilities. Have you considering expanding your offering to include XYZ services like some of your competitors are doing?”

Dumb question: “So what exactly is it you do around here?”

Smart question: “How accurately does your current site reflect your brand and how you want to represent yourself to your target market?”

Dumb question: “Your current site really blows. Who designed it, anyway?”

In Jeffrey Gitomer’s Little Red Book of Selling, the author challenges sales people to ask questions that cause clients to respond with, “No one ever asked me that before…” Asking powerful questions causes your prospect not just to think—but to think in new ways. Asking questions about information you could have found on their website will also make them think … about how lazy or unprepared you are.

Write it Down

Don’t embarrass yourself by having to ask your prospect to repeat the answer to a question you already asked but didn’t bother to write down. Demonstrate your professionalism by taking copious notes. I once had an attorney comment on the fact that I was writing down everything he said. He saw that I was consulting him—just as he does with his clients.

The other reason you must take thorough notes is because everything he says will become your proposal */slash/* contract—assuming he verbally agrees to do business with you. Plus, when you transition from fact-finding into proposing a solution, you’ll need your notes to re-cap what you’ve discussed to be sure you haven’t missed anything before moving on.

In order not to appear like a journalist, it’s best to start with some conversational, ice-breaking questions. The rule-of-thumb is move from general (“How did you get started in this business?”) to specific questions (“How much additional revenue would you like to generate with this website?”). At the point where you turn the conversation to more specific, business-related questions, quietly open your billfold and start taking notes.

It’s also a good idea to refrain from asking personal questions if your prospect hasn’t give you permission to do so. People will let you know what personal topics are okay to discuss. For example, if your prospect mentions he’s had a crazy day because one of his kids is sick and he got into the office late … guess what? He just gave you permission to ask about his children. Otherwise, avoid personal topics that haven’t been introduced into the conversation.

Beware the Groove!

In sales, building rapport and relationships is important. I’ve written previously about avoiding manipulative techniques to create a false sense of rapport. One such technique is matching the other person’s body language. But something you do want to match is the other person’s pace. We all have a natural rhythm or pace in life, and you want to try to match it. Or, as a popular animated Disney movie put it, don’t throw off his groove …

“His groove, the rhythm in which he lives his life, his pattern of behavior. Beware of the groove!!”

I don’t mean that you should try to figure out his personality and match his style. Rather, be aware of his “groove” at the moment and match that. He may be the most extreme Type-A personality on the planet, but if you happen to catch him right after he closed the biggest deal in his career, his “groove” may be laid back. My natural “groove” is laid back, but you might mistake me as a Type-A—if you happen to meet with me when I’m having a busy day. Move too slow when I’m in “Type-A” mode and I’m going to lose patience and wish that I could wind you up. Move too fast when I’m in my natural groove and I’m going to perceive you as aggressive or pushy. Get my point?

How to Get Most of Your Questions Answered in 60 Seconds or Less

Here’s a technique I learned from a student in one of my sales training sessions. It’s an effective question to ask someone in “Type-A” mode who’s moving you along faster than you’d like:

Give me a 45-second commercial about what’s unique about your business and why someone should buy from you.

You can bet in that short time-frame, he’s going to tell you what he considers the most important aspects of his company.

Looking for another shortcut? Follow me on Twitter and I’ll send you my list of “27.5 Must-Ask Questions for Consultative Selling.”

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This is the 7th installment of the series “Understanding the Sales Cycle,” which consists of:

What’s a Buying Cycle and Why Should I Care?
What’s a Sales Cycle and Why Do I Need One?
Your Client is Ready to Buy, but Are You Ready to Sell?
How to Prepare
Making a Good First Impression
Prospecting 101
Uncovering Needs

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  • http://www.threenine.co.uk Gary Woodfine

    Great advice here on selling. The best bit of advice I was ever given during my early days of selling in business, “Listen to be able to talk more”. What the person meant by this was that the more you listen the more chance that the person who is talking to you will want to talk to you more.

    You are spot on about guiding the conversation, this is an art form that many sales people tend to overlook. I have lost count of how many sales people have worked hard in order to just get an appointment to see me, and only blow it on the appointment by only talking about how there company can solve my problems without actually finding out what my real problem is.