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School days. Happy days. Lots of memories. The exuberance. The total lack of worries. School friends. Long school holidays spent in the South of France. The teachers I loved. Those I, well, liked less. And these happy moments when, as the teacher asked a question, I knew the answer, raised my hand and was just so eager to share my knowledge with the teacher and my class mates.
Sadly though, I came to realise that this eagerness to answer questions was a terrible habit we picked at school and that it was well worth trying to control this urge. Surprisingly (or not), when asked a question, there is a lot of value in not answering it, right away. I’ve already mentioned that one should learn to ask questions, they are very useful. Needless to say I do not mean not to answer questions at all. What I mean is one needs to understand better the real question that is being asked, not necessarily the one heard. Here are four reasons why one should do so and one framework I use:
1- We don’t ask what we really want to know: As weird as it may sound, we often do not ask the questions we really mean to ask or we use them as a way to gather a different information. We take a higher ground. We seek higher information. Let me use a a trivial example to clarify. If on a Friday evening I am back home, I realise we are out of milk and my wife is still on her way back, I would ring my wife and ask: “Where are you?”. I would not ask her: “Can you buy milk?”. I want to understand first if she is still in the tube, if she has already exited it, how long it will be before she is back, etc… The same applies in a sales context. A prospect will ask questions which are at a much higher level than what she/he would really want to know.
2- Our happy ears: More often than not, when a prospect is asking questions, we are simply very pleased. Putting happy ears on, we can assume it is a demonstration that the prospect is interested, we can think they demonstrate an interest, a so called “buying signal”. So we want to develop the relationship with the prospect by providing answers right away. But a question can have so many different readings. For example, for a firm selling sandwiches, a question such as “So I understand you work with Tesco and Sainsbury, is this correct?” can mean “your quality and hygiene must have been rigorously checked” which is possibly positive or, on the flip side, “I am not sure you will be looking at my business which is more smaller in volume than these big retailers”. By qualifying the question, we avoid having our happy ears taking over.
3- We don’t necessarily hear what is being asked: Human beings are hugely complex animals who understand and see the world in so many different ways. We have plenty of built-in lenses (through education, culture, personal experience, etc…) that we’ve developed to help us understand how the world we evolve in functions and make sense of it. So when we hear a question, chances are we apply some of these lenses. These “lenses” could be very different from the one used by the person asking the question and completely distort our understanding. Hence the value to make sure we understand the question properly.
4- It’s an even relationship: When in a conversation with a prospect, there can be a feeling of the prospect holding the cards and us, sales people, looking at pleasing the prospect in the same way we wanted to please our teachers by answering their questions right away. It is however important to remember that a selling engagement is two professionals, building an even relationship, sharing information in a honest way to assess if there is a ground for business that will result in one side having a problem resolved, the other paying for the service. And to understand if this will happen and what need to take place, both sides of the relationship are entitled to acquire information. Hence why, qualifying questions to make sure we understand them properly is something that one should not be shy of.
These are four reasons why we need to control our urge to answer questions prospects asked and have a mechanism whereby we understand clearly what is really the question asked. Any others you could think of? If so, I am keen to hear about them (I am sure there are tons)?