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The Art of the Probe: Qualify and Clarify your Way to the Top!

by Dorothy Leeds

Having spent the last fifteen years analyzing questions and why they are a salesperson’s greatest ally, I am always surprised that salespeople ask so few. Even the most successful salespeople can add to their bottom line by increasing the quantity and improving the quality of their questions.

I firmly and emphatically believe that a sale is a series of questions to uncover needs and wants, to build relationships, and to gain commitment. If you buy this definition, you will focus your selling effort on questioning. Questions are an integral part of the entire sales process: prospecting, opening the sale, probing, qualifying, answering objections, and closing.

There is so much emphasis placed on probing, but so little time spent doing it. While doing research for my books and workshops, I have video taped over 1,000 sales interviews and only one person had an accurate perception of what percentage of time he was actually probing and listening. The other 999 felt they were asking and listening over 60 percent of the time. In actuality, they were talking over 70 percent of the time. It’s helpful to remember that when you are talking, you are not learning. All you are doing is hearing yourself talk. I’ve learned from all my research that most people feel uncomfortable asking a lot of questions, and may even have been discouraged from doing so. I have also learned that many people just don’t know how to ask better questions.

When salespeople do ask questions, they often ask closed-ended, and “yes” or “no” questions. These can turn someone off, for they benefit only the asker. When probing, be sure to ask interesting and thought-provoking questions. They will set you apart from all those other sales reps whose questions are usually boring, predictable, and closed-ended.

Why do we probe?

  • To get information. Although this seems obvious, it is only half the answer. We are in the information age and the financial consultants with the most extensive, up-to-date, and most focused information will have an enormous advantage. You are seeking not only the facts but the feelings as well. Sales experts have been telling us for years that our clients and customers want the facts, but the final “yes” is an emotional decision. Therefore, it is vitally important to understand how your customers and clients think and feel.

The other, and much more challenging, part of probing is to create openness on the part of your customers to change. Many salespeople are good at the first part, but forget about the latter. To buy your product or service, your customer must change in some way, and we all know how difficult it is to change. The more willing your clients are to change, the easier it will be to gain commitment and close. Think of each visit, even a phone call, to a customer or prospect as an opportunity to learn more. The more you know about your clients on all levels, the more you multiply your opportunities and strategies for generating change.

Change to a salesperson equals greater commitments. Knowledge is power in life, and especially in selling. Keep up with the changing world of your prospects and clients. Do not become complacent: Keep probing!

So you are probably asking, “How do I create thinking and openness? How do I get my prospect or customer to want to change, or at least to be open enough to do so? How can I stand out from the competition by asking better questions?” Try using super probes. Instead of asking, “How do you make your purchasing decisions?” try, “How have your decisions changed in the last three years?”In what specific ways have your purchasing decisions changed since the advent of ____?”

  • To clarify: Most salespeople, at least the ones I have observed in action, do not clarify. They accept generalizations galore. Never miss an opportunity to clarify and specify a compliment like “I really like your company.” Ask, “What are the things you find the most valuable?” Be sure to clarify the reverse, “ I have no interest in your product or service.” Ask, “Mr. or Ms. Customer, could you share more specifically what no interest means?” Do not put words in your prospects’ mouths. Ask, Stop, and Listen. Remember that people perceive things differently. When someone says he/she has had a bad experience with your company, it could have many different meanings. If you do not clarify their statement fully, you will never know how to answer.

A question like, “ I would like to correct any problems you have had, could you describe as fully as possible how I can make amends?” will put you on the right track. Never stop after the first question; it is often the second, third, and fourth that will get you valid information. If your prospect says, “I have friends who utilize your service,” be sure to ask what, specifically, he/she feels your friends find valuable and beneficial in your service.

  • Toqualify: The more qualified your prospect, the easier it is to close. For example:

A potential customer or client who likes your product/service, has a real need or desire for it, wants it at the present time, and has the budget to pay for it is a lot better than one who is committed to another rep or company, has had a bad experience with your company, and has budgetary problems.

Statistics show that qualified clients are 50% easier to close. But we also probe to gain a greater understanding of how our customers think and feel:

  • What’s most important to her?
  • How have her priorities changed or shifted due to new products or changing needs?
  • How has new information or a changing economy altered her thinking?

What do I qualify for?

  • Needs and wants: Years ago people thought that needs were more important than wants, but in today’s affluent society what we want has become equally important. Do not assume you know what those wants and needs are. Some people want to keep up with current trends; some are only worried about the money. Emotional issues are always complex and always changing. A client gets a new partner or a partner leaves, and needs and wants change. You must be ever vigilant and ever questioning
  • Decision making process: Most sales books and workshops concentrate on finding the real decision-maker. Getting a full understanding of how decisions are made is much more helpful. Here are just a few questions for starters:
  • Please describe the process for making this type of decision?
  • Who or what influences the group (if it is a group decision)?
  • How often do they meet?
  • Who seems to be the leader of the group? This is a tricky one, but invaluable if you can discover it.
  • What are the key factors that could convince them to say “yes” to this project/purchase?

The best way to stand out from the competition, and to raise your profitability, is to probe with the masters. The top salespeople I work with, in all fields, know that the art of the probe is the foundation for sales success. Proficiency and polish, when applied to probing and clarifying will leave the rest of the pack in the dust!

  Dorothy Leeds
  800 West End Ave.
  New York, NY   10025
  212.932.8364 (FAX)

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