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Business Management

Ask Your Customers Smarter Questions

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Johnny Carson was and remains one of my favorite entertainers ever. In my mind, the man who redefined late-night television ranks right up there with Jimmy Page. Apparently, I’m not alone, as countless clips from The Tonight Show still generate thousands of views on YouTube every year. That’s why I’m both surprised and disappointed that my best efforts to confirm that the following incident actually took place on the show yielded nothing; no video footage of it seems to exist. Nevertheless, if what I’m about to describe didn’t actually happen, it certainly should have. The story goes that Carson — who hosted The Tonight Show long before Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno — interviewed a guest billed as the world’s greatest salesman. This guest is widely believed to be Fred Herman, who Earl Nightingale called “the greatest sales trainer who ever lived.”

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When your television guest touts himself as the greatest seller ever, you have to take that opportunity to have some fun. Carson reportedly said something along the lines of, “So, you’re the greatest salesman in the world? Sell me something.”

“What do you want me to sell?” Herman asked.

Looking about and laying eyes on a prop long since vanished from late-night sets, Carson responded, “How about this ashtray?”

“What do you like about the ashtray?” inquired Herman.

Carson mentioned its unusual shape and distinct color, as well as how it coordinated with other items on his desk.

Without missing a beat, Herman then asked, “Well, how much would you be willing to spend on an ashtray of this shape and color, and one that matches your decor so well?”

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“Maybe $10,” the host replied.

“Sold,” smiled the salesperson.

Are You Boring Your Customers?
Herman clearly understood the art of the inquiry. With two simple questions — “What do you like about this ashtray?” and “How much would you be willing to spend?” — he proved he knew what to ask. Then he actually listened to the answers. Consequently, Herman convinced Carson to convince himself to pay $10 for that ashtray.

When you’re on a crowded sales floor making a sales pitch, it can be easy to get distracted by other customers, their kids, the store manager or even your sales pal trying to make a sale two motorcycles away. You must stay focused, and in order for that to happen, you need to keep your prospect focused, too.

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How many times have you heard yourself asking these types of questions?

  • What kind of riding do you plan to do?
  • Are you planning any trips in the near future?
  • Will you do any two-up riding?

Boring. Boring. And, boring.

Conversation Starters
I don’t blame you if you have a tough time caring about the responses to those questions. Savvy salespeople engage buyers in a discussion and ask provocative questions that excite prospects. There’s nothing like excitement to help quickly turn a prospect into a real live customer.

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What do I mean by “provocative questions?” I mean questions that spur conversations, not awkward and essentially meaningless give and take.

Try these questions next time you sense a sales pitch headed for a dead end:

  • Imagine this: You have an entire day to do nothing but ride, just you and a couple friends. Where would you go and what would you do?
  • When you think about riding, what are the first two things that come to your mind?
  • If you were one of the engineers at your favorite motorcycle company, what is the one element you would make certain is designed into every motorcycle manufactured?
  • If you could wave a magic wand over your current ride, what is the one thing you would change about it?
  • If you were asked to create a list of the three best motorcycles/snowmobiles/personal watercraft ever built, what makes and models would be on that list?
  • When did you first become interested in this particular motorcycle/snowmobile/personal watercraft?

What kind of answers do you think those questions will elicit? Savvy questions lead to excellent answers and smarter selling. It’s as simple as that.

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I know what you’re thinking: “But, Mark, people want to buy a motorcycle, not sign up for eHarmony. They’re not going to share their riding fantasies with me.”  

Think again. Prospects wouldn’t even be in your store if they weren’t passionate about what you’re selling. Take advantage of that passion by encouraging them to talk about what they already love talking about. As a result, you will gain valuable insight into their riding habits, preferences and personality — all essential to developing a lasting relationship with your newest customer.

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An Alternative To The Alternative Close
The questions don’t stop there, though. Consider your alternative close techniques. Do you usually try wrapping up a sales pitch by asking, “Would you like to come in for a test ride Tuesday night or Thursday night?”

Be careful here. While those types of questions do encourage a response from prospects, being put on the spot with an either/or question often forces them to default to an easy “no.” No sales professional wants to hear “no.”

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How about making a slight change to the phrasing of that test ride question? Try this: “Would you like to set up a test ride? I’ve got time Tuesday and Thursday nights, but I’m able to do whatever works best for you.”

The prospect will feel more in control of the situation and find comfort in the fact that they are not faced with a direct either/or question, and that the salesperson is willing to work around his or her busy schedule. This twist on the either/or question will continue your engrossing conversation instead of bringing it to a crashing halt.

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After all, if Johnny Carson could get excited about an ashtray — an ashtray, for cryin’ out loud — surely you can elicit enthusiasm for a beautiful, big-ticket item that will make your customers much happier than any ashtray ever could. 


An award-winning author, top-rated trainer and founder of Peak Dealership Performance, Mark Rodgers holds a master’s degree in adult education and the National Speakers Association Certified Speaking Professional designation — only 500 people in the world have this coveted recognition. Contact [email protected] to improve your performance.  

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