Selling Strategies - Trust-Based Selling: Finding and Keeping Customers for Life (2015)

Trust-Based Selling: Finding and Keeping Customers for Life (2015)

Chapter 11. Selling Strategies

Sales 101

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

—John C. Maxwell

No matter how much strategy you have, you still must be able to pull the trigger and execute. Selling skills are your number one tool in developing the element of trust. Like with many things, selling skills are not the only thing you need, but without them you face an uphill challenge.

Selling is simple. Listen to the customer. Ask questions. Push the focus back on the customer at all times. If every salesperson could do these simple tasks, it would put every sales author and trainer out of business.

Why are questions so important? You ask questions for two reasons.

· They enable you to dive into the heart of the issue. You can expand the issue to the point where the customer says, “I have to fix this problem.”

· They show that you care. As John Maxwell said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This is the quote at the beginning of the chapter, but it is worth repeating. Showing you care will win you more trust than any strategy you employ. Without proper intent from the beginning, you will have difficulty advancing the sales cycle.

I just saved you hundreds of dollars on sales books. It really is that simple. The problem is that for most people, the 80% crowd, this is hard to do. I am no exception. I teach sales skills, yet I still have to constantly remind myself, “Shut up, focus back on the customer, and don’t talk so much about what my products or service can do.” I like to hear myself talk, but I am at least to the point where I am aware when I am boring a customer.


I was just reading an article that said questions are becoming a passé concept as a sales tool; conversations are the way to go. I agree that conversations are most important. However, questions are the tool of choice to guide conversations. The easiest way to start a conversation or keep a conversation going is with questions. I think the article was referring to the old questions like, “What keeps you up at night?,” “What’s the stone in your shoe?,” or “If you could fix one thing, what would it be?”

I believe canned questions like these are past their prime. First, everyone uses them, so they sound insincere. Second, you have not earned the trust to ask personal questions yet. No one is going to dump their troubles, business or personal, on someone they have no trust in. This chapter helps you better understand why questions are important, why you need to build toward tougher questions, and how to use questions effectively so you become a conversationalist without sounding like an interrogator.

Overused word alert: I will use the word “question” in some form 95 times in this chapter. (I counted.) I overuse the word to drive home the importance of questions.


Why is something as simple as asking questions so hard for salespeople? For 80% of salespeople, their comfort zone is in talking about their products. I see it with new salespeople, regional managers, and VPs of sales; they like to talk about what they can do for the customer. They like to talk about their products, their company, and themselves. I could share with you several stories about bad sales behavior, or salespeople with long monologues, but this example best exemplifies the challenge of staying focused on the customer and asking questions.

I have had the chance to interview many sales candidates over the years. During the interview, I spend half the time on an exercise with the candidate. My goal is to determine if they can keep asking questions. From the quality of their questions, I can get a great sense of how technical or business savvy they are. Here is how I set up the role-play.

This is not a sales call. You have a customer who has just awarded you a deal to help them implement a project. I will play the customer, and all I want you to do is ask me questions about the project. I want you to understand the business goals, the technical environment, the timelines of the project, and the technical objectives. Understand the timeframes, budgets, and how this project affects the business. Again, just find out as much as you can about this project. Do not sell to me. Listen to my answers; they will help you form your next question.

I have set them up to exhibit the proper sales behavior, asking questions. I even tell them the exact information they need to get from me. In the interview, there are a few check boxes I am looking for.

· Does the candidate keep asking questions?

· Are they asking business questions?

· Are they asking technical questions?

· Are they asking personal or pain questions?

· What caliber of questions do they ask?

· What depth of knowledge is demonstrated?

· Are they carrying on a conversation?

The results are typical. Nearly 80% of the time, the candidates ask two, maybe three, questions, and then start making statements about how they can help. They think since it’s a sales interview that they need to sell. What I want to see is proper selling behavior, which consists of asking questions. When they start selling, I think, “They just stopped selling. Now I am getting a monologue.” I stop them, and tell them once again, “Just ask questions to understand this project.” Still, 80%–90% of candidates find an opening in the conversation to deliver a monologue. The true indication of the depth of the problem is the fact that these candidates are making up their monologue. They know very little about what the company does, but they proceed to “wing it” and make up value propositions on the fly.

As stated, selling is simple, but hard for most salespeople to execute. I believe the disconnection lies in how each person’s selling style is ingrained in their personality, which is difficult to change.

What is easy to change is strategy. Strategy can be done with management, in the car, in the parking lot, and in a conference room. When strategizing, you do not have the pressure of the customer in front of you. There are no repercussions for missteps. Setting a strategy is easy. The proper strategy will keep you aligned with the skills you need to employ. You cannot execute the strategies in this book without asking questions. Questions force you to exhibit the proper skills. And the answers to your questions can be used to further refine your sales strategy and make it more effective. Even if you ignore the advice of building trust before you enter into an opportunity cycle, you cannot learn about the opportunity without asking questions. How else will you learn these elements in the sales equation?

CE x V x P x DP x (D+I+C+R)2 = Sale

· Pain/compelling event (CE)

· Value/budget (V)

· Access to power (P)

· Decision/purchase process (DP)

· Your relative trust strength (D+I+C+R)2

No matter how smart you are, or how well you position your products, you cannot qualify the customer or the opportunity without asking the right questions. Using the hunter analogy, your skills are your ability to aim and shoot. Questions are your gun. Questions are your sales weapon of choice. When asking questions, you give the customer a chance to talk. This is a conversation. No matter how well you think a sales call went, the next time you get out of an appointment, stop and think, “Who did all the talking?”

In your first few encounters with new customers, your focus should be on raising trust levels. This is as easy as asking questions. Ask questions; ask questions. Why?

Intent. If you stay focused on the customers by asking them in detail about their issues, you show that you care about them. They may even forget they are in a sales meeting.

Results. This one is hard to earn from the beginning. However, you must ask questions about their goals. Understand where they are, and where they want to be. Have them tell you what a successful solution looks like.

Dedication. In the early stages of the sales/buyer relationship, your dedication is closely tied to your intent in the customer’s mind.

Capability. You are better off showing capability through intelligent questions rather than telling what you can do for them.

I was once in your shoes and wanted to prove that, even though I was a “sales guy,” I could hang with the customer’s engineers. I could, but it took me 10 years to realize that the engineers dismissed what I was saying, just because I was the salesperson. I was not doing myself any favors. I eventually learned that the quality of my questions could demonstrate my capabilities. I now have a goal with every sales call: to hear the words, “great question.” The more “great question” responses I get, the more comfortable the customer is about my abilities. As trust grows, they open up even more.


The tough questions you are afraid to ask are the most professional ones. Questions about the decision process, budgets, time frames, goals, how the business is affected if they don’t do something, or the advantage the customer will have if they do move forward, will show you are the business consultant they are looking for. The interview process I described earlier in this chapter had this very goal—to determine the quality of questions asked by the interviewee. I wanted to know if they asked technical, project, or business-related questions. I wanted to know how detailed, or how in depth they could go in any one subject. Your customers want to know the same things. You will impress them with great—and sometimes difficult—questions, and you will annoy them with the answers you provide unsolicited.

A Study on

A large manufacturing company noticed a trend with their sales teams. After two years in a sales position, most salespeople started to lose momentum. Morale would decrease, and their sales results would diminish to the point of disrepair. (See Figure 11-1).


Figure 11-1. Declining sales performance over time

The two curves show morale and productivity. When starting in a new territory, you are working hard, and you are probably insecure because you do not know your customer, market, or products very well. However, as you gain experience, your morale and performance pick up. At about the two-year mark, your morale and performance are at an all-time high. So why does the curve start to go down at that point? This seems like a huge contradiction.

It’s called the “double E effect.” Experience and enthusiasm kill sales. Wait! You probably have read some place that one of the key qualities of any salesperson is passion. Isn’t enthusiasm another word for passion? Why would experience play a role in causing sales to decline? The answer is simple. Once a salesperson masters her product or services, she stops asking questions. She is now an expert in what she is selling. She has great intent and has helped many customers produce results. She is eager (enthusiastic) to help the next customer. With the two Es, she starts telling the customers how she can help. She stops asking questions! Think about an uncomfortable conversation, or an early sales call, where you knew little about the product. Your defense mechanism was to ask questions and get your customer to talk, which is great selling. It is simple to see from the outside looking in, but hard to recognize when you are actually on the sales side of the call.


During sales training, I do an exercise where I ask one of the participants in the class to role-play with me. This kind of role-play demonstrates behavior, rather than sales training-type role-play that is meant to ingrain specific memorized wordings. The first thing I do is put the salesperson on a sales call where they know nothing about their product. The example I use is a vacuum salesperson (I like the stereotype) going to a potential customer’s home. It’s this person’s first day on the job and he was going only to observe the senior salesperson. The new person shows up in the driveway and is waiting for his partner. The phone rings. The partner is stuck in traffic, “You have to cover this call for me.”

Since the participants know very little about vacuums, they are typically very nervous, so I tell them to just ask me questions. They hesitate, thinking of questions, and then they come out. Why did you agree to an appointment today? What is your old vacuum? How does it work? Is there anything you don’t like about it? Are there features you wish it had? How often do you vacuum? Do you have kids or pets? Questions, plain and simple. The participant looks very awkward. So I let them off the hook. I say, “Great job. I know you are nervous. Let me make it easier on you. Let’s role-play a sales call within your industry.” You see the person’s mood and morale instantly improve. They are back in their comfort zone.

Jeff, the participant in this case, is eager to get another try, this time with a product he knows something about.

I say, “Jeff, welcome; thank you for coming in, we would like to talk about x today.” Jeff starts with some pleasantries. Then he asks a couple of questions about what the customer would like to hear about. Then Jeff starts to “sell.” He says how great the company is; how their product is better and why. On and on.

After teaching on my feet all morning, I feel like letting him go on all afternoon, so I can rest. However, I am nice and I cut him off after three minutes or so. “Good job Jeff; please take a seat.”

Jeff proudly walks back to his seat, since he just did a great job selling. He did do a great job selling, but it’s not in the scenario he thinks. I poll the class, “Which was a better sales call?” Almost unanimously, the class votes for the vacuum sales call. Everyone can see that the call was smoother, the customer was more engaged in answering questions, and Jeff got a ton of information from the customer.

When you are in the middle of the “sale,” you need to be an outside observer, like the class, and start to be aware of what’s going on. Are you sounding like a bore? Is the customer engaged? Are you asking questions?

Objectively, when I look back at people I have worked with, or for, one great salesperson stands out in my mind. At the time I thought he was average, but over time, I gained new respect for his abilities. I wish he had taught me more. I was a beginner who was slowly becoming an expert, and he was an expert. I liked to prove I was as smart as the engineers, so I talked about products. I had the answers to the customer’s problem; I had quick answers to their questions.

He acted like he didn’t know a thing. He would just ask simple questions that I knew he knew the answers to. I would ask him, “Why are you asking so many simple questions?” He would just smile. I didn’t get it 20 years ago, but today I do. He did not let his enthusiasm and experience stop him from asking questions. He was an expert acting like a beginner. He was a professional.


Let’s go back to Susan from Chapter 2, the woman who had access to 20 CIOs in her territory. When we analyzed what was going on, we realized the weak link was the sales manager. She had an enthusiastic sales manager who was overjoyed with the fact that Susan had C-level access at 20 accounts. In the first three months of her being on board, Susan introduced her boss to each of her previous customers. After six months, there were no measurable results in Susan’s territory.

At the quarterly business review, the VP of sales analyzes the situation. The VP asks the regional manager, “So, how are things going?”

He replies, “Great. It’s just a matter of time before we can take advantage of Susan’s relationships.”

VP: “What activity has occurred?”

The enthusiastic regional manager: “It’s been awesome. Susan has brought us into about 20 accounts, at the C-Level. We’ve had the chance to tell our story to 20 new customers!”

The VP’s response was not so enthusiastic: “What the [****] do you mean?”

Confused, the regional manager asks: “What do you mean?”

Ignoring the question, the VP suggests, “Let’s go down the list of these ­customers and understand what next steps we have with each. I want to know what issues they have. Customer number one, what are their main initiatives for the year?”


“Customer number 2, what are their main initiatives for the year?”


VP: “You told our story? How long did you take in telling our story?”

Regional manager: “Well you know our slide deck, 30 minutes or so.”

VP: “Did you bother asking the customer anything about their business?”

Regional manager: “In most cases with the C-level they only had 45 minutes. So, we didn’t have much time for that.”

VP: “[****]!”

This is typical. The regional manager was excited to have Susan’s access to the C-level contacts and took for granted her relationship with the customer. He thought with her relationship, all he needed to do was tell the customer how great her new company was and orders would flow in.

What happened?

· He forgot sales 101, which is to ask questions.

· He forgot about the incumbent.

· He forgot about qualifying the customer.

· He bored the customers.

The customers dismissed the new vendor, because Susan and the regional manager did not take time to establish a trusting relationship. They did not show intent by taking the time to ask about their customer issues. Susan didn’t improve upon the trust she had built through her previous job, and she underestimated the trust the incumbent had built. She lost these sales as a result.

Questioning Skills

Here are the basics for questioning prospects.

· Listening will help you develop your best questions.

· Focus on the basics—who, what, where, why, and how (how many, how much),

· Asking “why” three times will lead to the real reason the customer has discussed an issue.

Let’s consider each of these points in detail.


The number one mistake you see with sales reps who are trying to question is that they do not listen to the answers. They ask a question, wait for the answer, and then move on to the next question on the list. The best questions feed off the customer’s responses. In sales, questions are your weapon. In hunting, your rifle is your weapon. The best sharpshooters in the word have an extra set of eyes on the target; they have spotters. The spotters tell the shooter where to aim. The shooter fires one round, and the spotter tells the shooter, “ You were down six inches to the left.” The shooter adjusts the weapon, or the scope on the weapon, to accommodate for the errant shot. The same goes with questions. Look for feedback from the customer in the form of their answers. Your next question should build off their answer, and probe for deeper understanding.

Sounding Like an Expert with Basic Questions

So the first principle is to listen and feed off the answers. How do you do this? Use the basic questions—who, where, what, when, why, and how. These questions will make you seem like an expert on any subject.

In the earlier example, Jeff was in front of the class asking questions to his potential vacuum customer. He must ask questions out of necessity. I call Jeff back to the front of the room and give him the instructions to listen to my answers and then follow up with the what, who, how many, and why questions. Here is how the conversation goes.

Jeff rings the doorbell and I welcome him in.

Jeff:  “I understand you are in the market for a vacuum?”

Customer:  “Yes I am.”

Jeff:  “Why are you looking for a new vacuum?”

Customer:  “Well, I don’t think the one we have works all that well.”

Jeff:  “What doesn’t work well? Is there a function you are looking for, or are your floors not as clean as you would like?”

Customer:  “A little of both. I think my current vacuum is heavy, and it’s hard getting the stairs clean. But mainly, the carpets don’t look as good as they used to.”

Jeff:  “Can you show me the stairs? Where are they dirty?”

Customer:  “See the edges and corners? I don’t have an attachment for those.”

Jeff: “So, it’s heavy and doesn’t have some features? How often do you vacuum the stairs?”

Customer: “I vacuum all the time. My kids are always dragging in grass clippings.”

Jeff: “How many kids do you have?”

This can go on forever, but you can see that this is a much smoother conversation. He asked how, what, who, and why questions. He listened and molded his next question based on the customer’s answers. Does Jeff know anything more about vacuums than he did 10 minutes before, when he was up in front of the class? No. But with some guidelines, he comes across as confident and knowledgeable. And, by asking deeper questions, he shows he cares. The trust is building. Luckily for Jeff, he knew nothing about the vacuum he was selling. If he had, he would have had the urge to start talking about the company’s new “Featherweight Series,” or something like that. Fight the urge to start talking about the solution right when the customer opens the door, and keep on feeding off their answers.

You can use the questioning method anywhere—in sales or even at parties. You will be amazed at the conversations you can hold without knowing a thing about a topic.

Get to the Heart of the Matter

If you ask “why” three times, you will get to the heart of the matter. You will get to the real reason that someone wants to make a change, fix a problem, or buy something new. Looking back at the vacuum scenario, the conversation could just as easily gone like this.

Jeff: “I understand you are in the market for a vacuum?”

Customer: “Yes I am.”

Jeff: “Why are you looking for a new vacuum?”

Customer: “Well, I don’t think the one we have works all that well.”

Jeff: “Why do you say that? Is there a function you are looking for, or are you floors not as clean as you like?”

Customer: “A little of both. I think my current vacuum is heavy; it’s hard getting the stairs clean. But, mainly the carpets don’t look as good as they used to.”

Jeff: “Can you show me what you mean?”

Customer: “See this area? It doesn’t look like stain; it just seems dirty.”

Jeff:  “It doesn’t seem too bad; why does it bother you?”

Customer:  “My mother in-law had fun pointing that out.”

Jeff, smiling:  “Mother in-law? Is she here often?”

Customer:  “Too often; I always feel my house has to be spotless.”

These questions are not exactly why, why, why, but variations of “why” are woven through each question. The real reason this customer wants a new vacuum is to impress her mother in-law. This is a much more powerful motivator than a dirty carpet.

This applies even more so to B2B sales. I have talked about how each title within a company has different goals. It is critical that you determine the real reason why someone is contemplating working on a new project or purchasing something new. Let me clue you in. Most people do not want to work harder. They want their lives to be easier. So the real reason they are willing to make a change has to be personal. Asking “why” three times will get you to the personal reason. Once you figure out the personal reason, your trust score goes through the roof. Your intentions become about helping them personally. The results you will show have an impact on their life or their career.

Salesperson:  “So Bob, you are looking at buying some more storage; why?”

Bob:  “The current system does not have the horsepower we are looking for.”

Salesperson:  “Horsepower, meaning . . .?”

Bob:  “Recently, we changed the backup of our major systems over from tape to our storage system. That was supposed to improve performance.”

Salesperson:  “Supposed to?”

Bob:  “Yes, it helped a little, but our backups are still taking hours.”

Salesperson:  “Why is that a problem?”

Bob:  “I am not allowed to leave work until the backups are completed.”

Salesperson:  “Wow, that’s a bummer. How late have you been staying lately?”

Bob:  “Well, I can’t play in our softball league anymore.”

The reason Bob wants a new storage system is because he wants to play softball!!! Nowhere in any cost justification, or ROI presentation, will it ever mention softball. But now that you know why Bob wants it so bad, you have an ally.

However, Bob’s boss will have a whole different reason why she wants new storage.

Salesperson:  “Bob tells me you are looking at some new storage.”

Karen:  “Yes, our backups are not running as fast as we would like.”

Salesperson:  “Why does this bother you—is it causing a problem?”

Karen:  “About a month ago, a large database was corrupted, and Finance was unable to run an end-of-quarter report. They were late in getting their quarterly earnings report to the CEO.”

Salesperson:  “How will faster backups help with that?”

Karen:  “It didn’t have any direct effect, but it put a spotlight on our slow backup process.”

Salesperson:  “Are tasked with solving this issue?”

Karen:  “Yes, my next quarter MBOs are all based on this project.”

By asking Susan enough questions, you finally get the real reason that Bob’s boss wants new storage; she is financially incented.


Remember the true reasons for asking questions:

· To uncover enough information about the situation to the point the customer is saying to themselves, “We have to fix this issue.”

· To show that you care.

Questions, questions, questions. You can see how customers will open up to questions. If you want to sum up sales skills, think questions, questions, questions. You can’t hunt without a gun. You can’t sell without asking questions.

Even though this book is about strategy that anyone can use regardless of skill level, it’s important to include on chapter about sales skills. To change your personality is a long process. The process starts with awareness. Be aware of the conversations you have with customers. After each sales call, ask yourself who did all the talking.

With this crash course in selling, you are now in a position to ask ­questions and listen to the customer. It is now that you start truly executing your strategy.