Blah, blah, blah.
Let’s face it — that’s what many sales presentations sound like. If you’ve been on the customer side of one, all you can think of is when it will end. And if you are on the selling side of the table, you might be thinking the same thing.
The way to convert a painful sales process into a powerful, productive conversation is to ask questions. Not just getting-to-know-you questions, although they are important. But getting at the probing questions that provoke deep thought and produce real answers for clients’ problems.
Questions are the cornerstone to building trust that leads to business, according to Andrew Sobel. He has made strategies to build trusted business relationships his life’s work. He has written eight best-selling books on the subject, such as Building C-Suite Relationships, Clients for Life, Power Relationships and Power Questions. He has also published more than 150 articles and contributed chapters to four books on leadership, strategy and marketing.
Andrew has worked for more than 30 years as a strategy advisor to senior management and an executive educator and coach. He has had many of the world’s leading companies as clients, such as Citigroup, Experian, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Towers Watson, UBS, Lloyds Banking Group, Ernst & Young, and Deloitte.
What he has learned and taught is that the best way to become trusted is to draw out clients’ or prospects’ deepest concerns or dreams. Who wouldn’t want to be that kind of agent and advisor? And the best route there is through the right questions.
In this interview with Publisher Paul Feldman, although Andrew is not only doing the answering, he is also presenting some provocative questions that can improve just about anybody’s sales game.
FELDMAN: Why are power questions important?
SOBEL: It’s because the sales environment has changed. I say this not just as someone who studies this and trains lots of professionals, but as someone who is a target for lots of people who want to connect with me and sell me things. Sophisticated buyers want to feel like buyers and not like they’re being sold to. People want to feel like they’re buyers because they’re educated now. Anything we want to buy, we go on the Internet and we research it. So, when I walk into Best Buy, as good as some of their salespeople are, frankly I often know more about what they’re selling than they do. People really want to feel like a buyer, and questions are a great way to do that. It’s a fundamental part of the way you do business with clients.
FELDMAN: Many people believe that they win sales by being quick on their feet and saying the right thing the right way. But you say that knowing the right questions is far more important to connect and persuade. Would you explain that?
SOBEL: Of course you have to be extremely knowledgeable about your subject matter and your products. But what makes people stop and listen is not when you are lecturing them or pushing something on them, citing all the benefits of a particular product. It’s when clients or prospects think a little differently because of the thought-provoking questions you are asking.
Consider the greatest thinkers in history. Think of Socrates, who of course developed the Socratic method of teaching by asking questions. Or people like Einstein, who had a very childlike sense of curiosity. Or people like Peter Drucker, who is considered the greatest management thinker of the 20th century.
Peter Drucker had five questions he asked his CEO clients. Whenever a leadership team would come out to California to meet with Drucker for a workshop, he would walk them through five questions that he had developed.
Our greatest thinkers were all more focused on the questions that surface the important issues so that we’re talking about the right things. If you step back, you realize you can really come across as wise and experienced when you are asking good questions.
FELDMAN: You said that you could overcome anything if you ask why. What did you mean by that?
SOBEL: By way of background, the idea around “why” was developed by Toyota. The company’s founder, [Sakichi] Toyoda, told his engineers they can diagnose any quality problem by asking “why” five times. Those were Toyota’s five whys. The point is when someone tells you something, usually there’s a higher-level issue that you really want to connect to.
So, if a client says, “I want to set aside some money for my children’s college,” it may seem ridiculous to ask them why they want to do that. But you may want to ask him to tell you a little more about that: “Why did you decide to do that now? How does this fit into your overall thinking about the responsibilities that you want to have when you finally retire?” There are always bigger issues above the specific request or the specific desire.
So, “why” can be a very important question, but you have to be careful with it. Why can come across as critical, carping or disapproving. You need to ask it with the right demeanor.
Anyone reading this who has teenagers knows that as soon as you ask them “Why they did something, usually you’re saying, why did you do such a dumb thing? What were you thinking?”
But used the right way, “why” can be a powerful question. It broadens it from a technical discussion about alternatives for saving for college to perhaps a larger discussion about that person’s goals and where they see themselves going.
FELDMAN: What are some “Power Questions” you recommend to break the ice and create new relationships?
SOBEL: First of all, let’s recognize that there’s a process. At one end, you meet someone for the first time. And at the other end, that has developed into a relationship where they’re a client. Obviously, a lot of things happen between those points, so we have to break it down.
Your best friend, especially at the early stage, is curiosity. It’s a genuine abiding curiosity about other people. I like to start out with some icebreaker questions that are not going to be too deep and won’t upset anyone. An icebreaker question could be as simple as “Who are you?” or “Why did you come?” or “What’s your connection with this event?” that tells me what sort of business you’re in.
You’re just breaking the ice, but you’re making it about the other person. Always remember that the process goes something like this: We build some initial rapport that may lead to an additional meeting or additional points of contact, which creates familiarity, which may create likeability, which leads to trust, and then that can be the basis for a business transaction.
FELDMAN: What’s the next step after you break the ice?
SOBEL: At some point, this conversation is going to shift to what you do, and here’s where it’s important to be able to describe that in a compelling way.
Someone can say, “I’m an insurance agent,” or they could frame that as a more appealing value proposition. Because if someone says to me, “I’m an insurance agent,” my first thought is probably going to be that I have all the insurance I need. So, I am thinking “It’s nice to meet you, but I don’t see a business relationship here.”
You can frame that differently around security or risk reduction and say: “I help people retire faster so that they can enjoy the things they want to do in life outside of work.”
That’s something just to think about because what you’re trying to do is get the other person engaged and excited. To get relationships and then drive those relationships toward possible business, you have to learn a little bit about the other person’s agenda. What are their top three to five important professional priorities and their three to five personal priorities?
FELDMAN: Should you be addressing and uncovering their professional and personal priorities every time you speak?
SOBEL: Absolutely. But you don’t do this all in one conversation over cocktails.
I want to know their priorities because what I do may or may not be very relevant to their concerns. So, I’m trying to surface their concerns and learning something about what’s important in their lives. On the other hand, I want them to understand what I do and how I help people.
It’s going to be the marriage of those two that ultimately leads to a business relationship as opposed to just a nice-to-know-you relationship where you send a Christmas card every year. I do this by gently asking questions.
FELDMAN: How do you move from the initial conversation to a meeting?
SOBEL: In order to pique their curiosity about meeting with you, you have to establish your credibility that you do some really interesting things for people just like them. One way to do that is to ask what I call a credibility-building question.
I don’t know the exact credibility-building question for insurance, but I would be asking something like, “A number of my clients who have large families like yours have looked at the following strategy as a very powerful way to dramatically reduce state taxes. I’m curious, is that something you’ve looked at?”
I state an observation, often referring to what other clients of mine are doing, and then I turn to a question. The credibility part is the observation that several of my clients have undertaken this type of strategy in order to achieve a goal. Then the question is “Is that something you’ve considered?”
You build curiosity and, of course, curiosity is your most powerful tool in the sales process.
FELDMAN: How do you turn a pitch into a highly engaged collaborative working session?
SOBEL: Most busy people don’t like to sit down and be presented to. They want to have a conversation. If you’re going to pitch a proposal to a client, think about it as having a conversation together. We’re going to have a conversation about this issue as opposed to my needing to pitch them on this proposal and walk them through every single aspect of it.
So, for example, I often will start a meeting by saying, “Our agenda today was to talk about this proposal, but from your perspective, what are the most important issues on your mind that you want to make sure we cover?”
I think most people don’t do a good enough job of letting the client define where they’d like to focus the conversation. With one simple question, they’ll quickly say they read the proposal and what their concern is. It’s better to address that than waste half an hour of their time lavishly going through the slides of the spreadsheets that you’ve prepared.
Sometimes when I see a client, I’ll say, “I know we’ve got our little agenda here, but from your perspective what’s the most important issue we should be discussing this morning?”
The other thing I do early on is test for urgency, because people have lots of issues. They have lots of concerns, but I always want to focus in on the ones that have the highest level of urgency. It could be as simple as, “Where would you position doing this among your priorities right now?” or “What is your timing on this?”
FELDMAN: What are some questions to get a deeper understanding of a client?
SOBEL: You might ask questions that increase personal understanding. Those kinds of questions often aren’t covered in sales training methodologies because increasing personal understanding doesn’t specifically have to do with the sales opportunity. It comes under the category of building trust and rapport with the person.
One question I like to ask is, “Wow! You’ve accomplished a great deal in your career. I’m just curious, is there still something you’d like to accomplish? Is there some dream you still have right now?”
I’ve asked some very senior executives that question and gotten incredible answers that help me understand them and help create additional opportunities to work with them.
FELDMAN: What are some other tips for connecting with the C suite?
SOBEL: One of the relationship laws in my book Power of Relationships is to walk in the other person’s shoes. If I’m meeting with a C-suite executive I’m thinking about what pressures they are under. The fact is, C-suite executives, people in senior leadership positions, are under a different set of pressures.
Turnover in those positions has accelerated. They’re time-starved. They’re under enormous pressure to perform. They’re struggling to balance their family life and their work life. And so you have to understand what that’s like.
In a C-suite meeting, focus on adding value for time. For top executives, their very first question to themselves is, “Am I going to get value out of taking half an hour out of my day to meet with you?” You’ve got to have a very clear value proposition about what piques their curiosity to spend that time with you.
The next thing is to walk in as an equal. If you walk in with your head stooped and you’re shaking their hands and saying, “Oh my goodness, thank you for your time. I know how busy you are. Thank you so much. I don’t know how you managed to make time in your busy day.”
I’m exaggerating, of course, but you have to walk in as an equal, which means you’re neither looking up to them nor looking down at them. You’re treating them as a peer or a friend. You’re not overly familiar, but you’re there as a peer because you’ve got very valuable knowledge that is going to help them. I think the third thing is it’s important to understand that C-suite executives tend to process information in very short chunks.
Most C-suite executives don’t have the patience for a long drawn-out introductions as in someone spending five, 10, 15 minutes talking about something. They process things in three- or four-minute bits.
You want to have an opening hook just the way a great rock song does. Think about the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction, which of course dates me, but it’s still a popular song. You know you have that great Keith Richards guitar hook that starts it out. Or the Beatles Help! You know the song starts out with this enormous cry for help.
You also want to be memorable in a meeting with a top executive because they meet with people all day. You might be the 50th person they’ve talked to that day, and you want to be memorable. You want them to say, “He asked me some interesting questions that no one else is asking me.”
You’ve got to take some risks. When you meet with a C-suite executive, if you play not to lose, you lose. You have to play to win. You’ve got to be a little bolder because if you go in and you’re like, “Oh my God, we’ve got this meeting with the CEO of this company,” your tendency is often to play it safe, be anodyne, not rock the boat and not ask him too many challenging questions. That’s often a losing proposition.
So, for example, in my context a challenge question might go something like this: A CEO might say, “Well, Andrew, we’re growing our client relationships 5 percent year in and year out.” I might come back and say, “That sounds good but some of my clients are achieving 10 percent. Do you think 5 percent is the best you can do?” I’ll ask challenging questions like that.
FELDMAN: Do you have any insight into what might be a challenge question in insurance or finance for an executive?
SOBEL: Top executives are always interested to know what other people are doing and what’s going on in the marketplace. So it’s being able to summarize very powerfully the critical things that have happened in the past 18 months that they need to know.
I’ll give you an example. I talked to some lawyers because my wife and I were redoing some of our estate-planning. One of the lawyers said, “Well, Andrew, let me summarize for you some of the trends in estate-planning among people like you who have your kinds of needs and family.” He rattled off about five things. I read a lot and I’m pretty educated, but he told me a few new things. That drew my interest It was a great credibility-builder.
FELDMAN: What are some good closing questions?
SOBEL: I’ll give you one that I don’t think you should ask — one that starts on a negative. This guy wrote years ago that his killer question to ask at the end of a meeting was, “What question haven’t I asked you that I should have?”
I think the clients are too sophisticated for that today. Because what that question is doing is trying to say, “We’re really on the same side here and let me move my chair over to the same side of the desk as you and could you give me some advice on being a better salesperson?”
I don’t mean to be flip, but that’s a question I occasionally hear and I think it’s outlived its usefulness. I would be careful about cutesy things like that.
I would also be careful of presumptive close questions. I think you earn the business by adding value and showing how you can solve important challenges for the client.
I don’t like presumptive close questions like, “Is there anything getting in the way of your signing this today?” There are all kinds of questions like that. Or “For the next meeting, would you like to meet at 9 a.m. on Wednesday or would 4 p.m. on Friday be better for you?” Maybe I’m different from a lot of people, but to me I like being in control and that’s trying to take the control away from me.
FELDMAN: Those tactics can seem forced and controlling. But what do you recommend to make sure you get the next meeting?
SOBEL: The goal of every meeting is to get another meeting until you close. You create the follow-on by evoking their curiosity that you might be able to help do something unique for them or help them with something.
At the end of a conversation, I have a couple of techniques. One is more traditional, which is to say something like, “Based on this conversation, I get the sense that there are a couple of areas where you may have a need. I’d like to suggest as a follow-on that I prepare an analysis for you around issue X or issue Y that I think would help you make a better decision about it.” You suggest a follow-up step.
But the other way is to give control to the client. It’s a little riskier, but it can create “reach.” That is when they’re reaching toward you as opposed to sitting back in their chair and saying, “OK, show me how brilliant you are.”
It might be as simple as, “We’ve talked about three things today, A, B and C. From your perspective what would be a good follow-up to this discussion?” Now some salespeople may be nervous about leaving it open-ended. In the worst case, the prospect might say, “I really don’t think I have a need.”
That’s possible. Or they might say they aren’t really sure. That’s a very different position than being aggressive and pushing something on them. They’re now reaching toward you, and that’s where I want the person to be. I want them leaning toward me, saying this was a helpful discussion and that they’d like to talk again.
I would just caution people against being overly scripted and sounding like they’ve got this list of memorized questions. Buyers your readers are calling on are much more sophisticated than they used to be. The salesman’s job used to be to inform people and give them product knowledge at the beginning.
Now it’s actually problem-solving. It’s “Tell me what you’re trying to accomplish. Tell me your goals.” Then it’s helping solve the problem and create alternatives.
The No. 1 relationship law in Power Relationships is based on great conversations. It’s not one person showing the other how much they know.
That’s a two-way conversation as opposed to showing them how much you know about the insurance business or how much you know about financial planning.
So, we could leave it with that. You want to have a great conversation with someone that informs them, educates them, gets them interested and advances their thinking.
And it all starts with questions.