When I was a kid, I was always asking questions. Whatever situation I would find myself in, it seemed I was always able to pepper everyone around me with endless questions about it. I wanted to know the whys, the whos, the whats – and the more I found out, the more questions I came up with. It didn’t take me long to sense the exasperation in my parents, not to mention all the other adults in my life. As I got older, I learned to curb my inquisitiveness, or at the very least, to temper the outward displays of it. Don’t get me wrong; the little kid inside of me was still coming up with the questions, but the grown-up on the outside had manage to construct a nifty filter that allowed only the most discreet and unobtrusive ones through.
And then I became a salesman. Slowly but surely, the little kid resurfaced. It wasn’t until I really and truly learned about working with customers that I realized how valuable questions are, provided they are the right questions! Let me explain.
As a division manager of a busy self-storage facility, I am continually challenged on two fronts: I need to preserve my current client relationships and to grow new ones. When I started in the business, I naively assumed that the way to go about selling was to bludgeon my customers with facts about how wonderful my product is. Then when it came time to ask questions, make sure they are the kind that require a “yes” for an answer. Boy was I wrong! It took some time and a lot of trial and error, but over the years, I began to really learn about people. I also learned about selling and I found that asking the right questions in the right ways went hand- in-hand with accomplishing my sales objectives. Here are some of the lessons I learned and the corresponding system of questioning I developed:
Questions are much more interesting than statements! This is something I found out very quickly. In my early days, I would launch into a big diatribe about the benefits of my storage units – how great they are, how much everybody loved them, etc. I found that even though I was entertaining myself, my client’s eyes would glaze over. So I slowly started replacing my statements with questions and guess what happened? My subjects suddenly became more alert, more responsive, and most importantly of all, more engaged. This is because my statements put them into listening mode, whereas my questions invited them to be participants, not just listeners.
You can’t sell anything by making assumptions! There is no way I can effectively make a sale by assuming that my customer needs my product, or assuming that what works for client. We all know what happens when you assume and nowhere is this more true than in the world of sales. So what I need to do in my initial line of questions is to learn everything I can about my customer. I found that the most effective way of doing this is to engage the client with open-ended questions; in other words, questions which invite answers more elaborate than a simple yes or no. For example, instead of asking “Do you like your storage unit?” I might invite a constructive dialogue by saying “Tell me all about your storage unit and what things you use it for…” The key is to ask the type of questions which result in the other person doing most of the talking.
Listening works much better than talking! Strange as it may seem, the most effective way to engage a customer’s attention is to make sure she does most of the talking. Sometimes this takes plenty of restraint, especially for someone like me who loves to talk. But it’s definitely worth it. The more the customer talks, the more engaged she becomes and the more I learn about her. Not only that, but by listening I am earning my customer’s confidence and loyalty by actively demonstrating that I have a real interest in her and care about her situation. Keep in mind that being a good listener doesn’t necessarily mean being a totally silent listener. Two types of questions can be very effective if they are judiciously sprinkled in. One kind is the clarification question (e.g., “Am I understanding you correctly that this is what you are saying?”) and the other kind is what I call a sympathy question – a question which essentially re-states (and reinforces) what the customer has just said. Clarification and reinforcement questions are all part of listening techniques that can build up my client’s desire to do business with me.
People are never suspicious of their own conclusions! Let’s face it; both of us know that I am a salesman. Therefore, even if I am the nicest guy in the world, any words that come out of my mouth will inherently carry with them at least a small measure of suspicion. But if those same words come out of the customer’s own mouth, the credibility of the words suddenly becomes impeccable. The listening tactic, together with its clarification and sympathy questioning line, induces the customer to do most of the talking and coupled with my reinforcement. Especially, the customer is using his own words to sell my product to himself! Most customers are not wary of buying something but only wary of being sold something.
Though I am not a kid anymore, I am probably asking just as many questions as I ever did. Luckily, I am no longer exasperating people. Instead, I am getting to know them, assessing their needs, and providing solutions for them. I suppose that I always understood the power of questions, even back then, but now I am able to see it first-hand.
Art Gould is a division manager with Self Storage Company, which operates a group of websites, including a West Palm Beach self-storage locator. Though busy, Art enjoys meeting new people and clients when traveling to sites, like Lakewood or the Miami self storage center.