Thursday, August 16, 2012

Strategies for Answering the Toughest Questions


One of the hardest things to do in all of sales is handle tough questions from skeptical prospective customers. After interviewing thousands of customers as part of the win-loss studies I have conducted, I can tell you with certainty that answering customer questions successfully is often the difference between winning and losing. Here are seven points to consider when answering questions:

Clarify the question first. Customers ask two basic types of questions. Some are very specific questions about a feature or issue, while others are more general about a broad topic or your opinion. In both instances, make sure you understand the question before answering it. Either rephrase the question your own mind your own words and repeat it to the questioner aloud or ask the questioner to further explain what he meant before answering. Many times, salespeople are too eager to give an answer to a question that wasn't even asked.

Show your domain expertise. If you intimately know your industry, company, and products and how they compare against the competition, you need not fear even the toughest question. Frame the beginning of your answers with statements that confirm your credibility like “Based upon my experience working with X, Y and Z companies” or  “I’ve been asked that many times over the years.”

Make sure everyone understands. Since most sales calls are conducted with groups of people, you should give a little background information with your answers to ensure everyone understands the topic of conversation. Don't assume everyone understands your company's buzzwords or nomenclature.

Provide an expert point of view. Never forget, your customer would rather do business with a trusted consultant who has intimate knowledge of the industry than an ordinary salesperson who simply understands how the product works. In fact, you are not actually there to sell anything. Your goal is to become a trusted advisor by intently listening to the questions the customer asks so that you can apply your expertise to solve the customer’s business problems or complete his initiatives. Ideally, once you have established yourself as an expert the conversation will flow into an off-the-record talk about the politics of his organization and his ulterior motives.

Redirect inane and unfair questions. Don't get flustered when you are asked an inappropriate question. Simply redirect the question by saying something like, "The question you really should be asking is … " 

Respond with Metaphors. Metaphors are stories, parables, and analogies that communicate ideas by using examples that people can relate to and identify with. Metaphors enable complex concepts and theories to be explained in an understandable, interesting, and persuasive manner. The most important metaphors are examples about the customers that are successfully using your products and services. Instead of barraging the customer with point-by-point facts and figures, structure your answer in a logical way using an existing customer’s impactful storyline.

Demeanor speaks volumes. The most powerful response to the most difficult question isn't solely the answer you give. It's also how you say it! Regardless of the question, keep a calm and confident demeanor. Most of all, do not get defensive. Stay positive. This is a critical lesson. When confronted by someone who disagrees with your opinion, it's okay to disagree without being disagreeable.

The demeanor and communication style used to deliver your answer should be collected and matter-of-fact. However, you want to build momentum as you make your response and finish on a high note. This is called a “build up.” Whenever you speak to a customer, you want to confidently peak during the final sentence of your paragraph. You don’t want your voice to trail off, signaling uncertainty or lack of conviction.

Remember, behind every question customers ask is an ulterior motive. They may want to validate a bias or throw you off track. That's why you shouldn't be too eager to answer or say yes to every question you are asked. The first step is to quickly theorize why the question was asked. Then formulate your response strategy to demonstrate your industry and business expertise in order to command respect. Sometimes, it is best to address inappropriate questions by providing an answer that guides the customer to a different topic.

Most importantly, maintain your composure at all times. So be sure to prepare your answers in advance to protect yourself from uncomfortable questions about your products, company, and competitors.

A critical aspect of every sales call is not necessarily what you have planned to say. Rather, it is how you handle the tough questions the customer asks you. Your question-handling ability is what separates you from the pack.