What does it really take to win more sales? It starts with asking buyers the right questions, but within the right framework. In my rookie years as a salesperson, I was a collector of questions (still am), but I didn't know how to ask the right ones at the right time to move the conversation to a logical conclusion. I understood the necessity of asking good questions to uncover a prospect's needs, but lacked the insight and experience to weave them together to create a logical pathway for the prospect to explain his or her situation so I could understand it and provide targeted solutions. I was disjointed when asking questions.
Years of trial and error, and of observing stellar salespeople artfully navigate through sales calls, have led me to the following framework for conducting a needs analysis for both small and large sales opportunities. This framework is flexible and can expand or contract depending on the number of follow-up questions required to successfully fulfill the objectives of the sales call.
Here is the five-question framework superstars use to outsell their competition:
- Issue--What is the problem?
Frame your questions based on the buyer's issues to understand her needs and wants and to determine her perceptions of value for a specific solution.
- Degree--How bad is it?
Seek to find the level of severity. It may not be as bad as the buyer says ... or it may be worse. Ideally, you want metrics to calculate the impact to her business. The next question will fill in more variables to the equation.
- Consequence--How is this affecting ________________?
You can insert almost anything in the blank--sales, margins, customer attrition, cash flow, reputation, fixed costs, variable costs, employee morale, shareholder value, competitive advantage, etc. At this point you should understand the issue, the degree of severity (with metrics), and the impact it's having on one or more elements of the business.
- Origin--How did this happen?
Uncover historical connections to the issue that will assist you in developing a solution. Be aware as you approach this question, though, that it could be too sensitive for the buyer to discuss--especially if it's within her realm of responsibility or she made a decision that led to the problem in the first place.
- Goal--Where do you want to be?
The buyer's intended outcomes complete the framework for you, so you can build your solution.
Each of these items is really a category for a set of questions. Each category can contain many follow-up questions to guide you to a clearer understanding of the prospect's situation and desired results.
Here is an example of these five categories from an abbreviated sales conversation between a very successful salesperson and a potential buyer. It has been edited to give you just the essentials of the process:
1. Issue--What issues do you want to address?
- Buyer: We've got too much downtime every time our system goes offline.
2. Degree--How much downtime are you experiencing?
- Buyer: Over the last three months we've averaged 4.7 percent, which is 50 percent higher than it should be.
- Follow-up: How long has this been going on? How often does this occur? (If she doesn't provide a specific metric, ask her, How do you measure downtime? What is your current downtime percentage?)
3. Consequence--How is that affecting sales?
- Buyer: We lost an existing customer and two new opportunities this quarter.
- Follow-up: Where did that put your sales against your forecast for the quarter? What are your customers telling you? How do you plan to recoup those lost sales? How much time do you have this quarter to make-up for the loss in revenue?
4. Origin--What is causing the downtime?
- Buyer: Our system is custom built and has not been updated, so we are struggling to integrate with some of our customers' systems.
- Follow-up: What solutions have you implemented to address this issue so far? What's working? What's not working?
5. Goal--What is a reasonable amount of downtime each quarter that won't adversely affect sales?
- Buyer: We should never exceed 3 percent downtime, including our scheduled maintenance program.
- Follow-up: What is your deadline for reducing your downtime to 3 percent?
For moderately complex sales, other than discussing the technical aspects in the conversation, you're now ready to complete any remaining qualifications and proceed to presenting your solution. For more complex sales processes, these five categories should be expanded to accommodate the depth and breadth of your prospect's needs and buying cycle.
Keep in mind that questions 2, 3, and 4 can be swapped as necessary. In fact, you may not always have a conversation that follows this exact order. The key takeaways are:
- Asking questions within a framework that helps you acquire the information you need
- Taking your conversation to a logical conclusion so you can build a solid business case for your solution
- Positioning yourself as a trusted business adviser in the mind of the buyer during the sales call
Asking well-crafted questions is the gold standard for really good sales reps. However, framing those questions in a way that separates you from the competition, as the most logical choice to deliver the solution, is the hallmark of a sales superstar.