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Arm Yourself With Questions

Otis shares the questions you’ve gotta ask to earn customer confidence and learn why they buy.


We can’t possibly know all the reasons a given customer will buy; each will have his own. Why then, do so many salespeople go through so much pain to arm themselves with answers as though it has any impact on helping the customer arrive at a buying decision?

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Please don’t e-mail me with the product-knowledge rebuttal; I know how important it is. But let’s argue about my point. I’ll offer only two defenses to my premise.

First Defense: My first sales manager and mentor, my grandfather, gave me a double-edged sword to encourage me to talk to people even though I couldn’t answer one single solitary question about anything we sold. (If asked whether a car was a two-door or a four-door, I’d have to actually walk around the car and count doors!) That sword turned out to be the most important product knowledge tool ever, and here it is: “I don’t know, but if it’s important to you, I’ll go find out right now.” When you combine that response with a willingness to actually find the answer, your customer will sense your sincerity. Likewise, if you’re not sincere, they’ll sense that just as clearly. (Grandad also insisted that I never think of it as a technique, but rather as a guiding principal.)


Most of the time when I responded to a direct question about the product in that manner (and at first I had to respond that way a lot) I found that people didn’t usually want me to go find out. They’d stop me with another question, usually more along the lines of “can I drive it?” Somehow knowing that I was willing to research an answer to their question was all they really wanted. My sincerity was often more important to the customer’s buying decision than the answer to the question.


Now here’s a confession: I said it was a double-edged sword, and what Granddad never could’ve predicted was that I’d rely on that response heavily for the rest of my career as an excuse to neglect learning product knowledge. And I still abuse that excuse to this day. The other side of that coin was that my decision not to educate myself made me commit to sincerely being willing to find answers (as opposed to feigning sincerity) because I really did not know the difference between a clutch and a kickstand. I had to go find out.


Second Defense: Selling is about learning what the buyer knows. It’s not about telling the buyer what you know. My friend and client Ray Price, owner of Ray Price Harley-Davidson, is a very quiet man. He doesn’t say much, but when he speaks, you’ve gotta listen. Ray said these wise words to me when we met, “If I do all the talking, all I’ll know when I’m done is what I know already. If I let you do the talking, then I’ll know what you know and what I know. And then I’m smarter than I was when we started.” (You’ve gotta love such straight-forward wisdom.)


So what does the buyer know that you need to know? They know why they’ll buy and they know why they won’t buy. And that’s what you need to know!

When we encounter a customer, they have within themselves two intangibles: They have a desire to buy (very intangible but also very compelling) and they have their reasons to buy (often far less tangible than their desire, which is why you need questions). In most cases, all a customer needs from a salesperson is to help them sync up their reasons for buying with their desire to buy and to find the product that will accomplish that. To clarify, if you show him the bike that matches his reasons to buy, he’s that much closer to pulling the trigger.


You can’t sell what we sell from a base of product knowledge. You’ve got to tap into the customer’s reasons. We teach that if you’re going to be successful selling what we sell, you must fully understand the customer’s buying process. A traditional selling process just isn’t enough — especially in this economy!

Remember the four phases of the buying process are as follows:

Want/Need: The factor that compels the customer to recruit you into his or her buying process.

Research: The point in the buying process where you encounter your customer.

Decision: The “I’ll take it” decision which precedes …The Purchase: The exchange of currency for product.

In an environment established by those rules, a salesperson’s job is merely to help customers identify and meet the criteria (to solve the reasons) they need to meet in order to move to the next phase, and to do so according to the customer’s timeline and agenda. That means that questions are the only tools that your customer has given you permission to use. They don’t necessarily want your opinion — they only want your help in justifying their own opinion. So arm yourself with the kinds of questions that will help you determine what it is that the customer needs in order to make that move, and then help them get their own questions answered for themselves.


Listen, what I’m trying to convey here is that if you continue to try and understand a selling process and neglect learning all you can about the buying process, you’re bound to get the same results you’ve been getting up to this point. I’ve heard it said that if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. So stop! This ain’t the car business — quit trying to learn what the car business does to sell stuff.

As this winter winds down and the spring selling season approaches, make it your mission to learn all you can about the buying process. Once you understand that, abandon any traditional selling processes and commit to making the customer’s buying process what drives you. You’ll change your life and the lives of your customers.

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