If you want to know how you can best help a customer, you must ask.  And there's a real art to interviewing customers so that they reveal the needs and opportunities your offering can meet.

First, you must know the right questions to ask.  If you don't, you'll be spending all your precious time with the customer chit-chatting. While some "rapport building" is a good idea, it's not going to move the sale forward.

Second, even if you know the right questions, you also need to know how to ask them.  If you ask in a way that confuses the customer, you not only won't get the information you need, but you'll probably irritate the customer in the process.

Here's how to be certain you ask the right questions in the right way, based upon a conversation with web conferencing guru Wayne Turmel of GreatWebMeeting.com.

1. Prepare for the meeting.

Go into every customer meeting with a plan to learn more about that customer. Before each meeting, review your relationship with the customer and identify gaps in your understanding of the customer's business.

Take a few minutes prior to plan out the general types of questions you're going to ask.  In sales situations, there are six "lines of inquiry" that you'll want to investigate:

  1. The current state of the customer's business (aka "here").
  2. The desired state of the customer's business (aka "there").
  3. The challenges prevent the customer moving from here to there.
  4. The business and personal matters that might influence the final decision.
  5. The resources, authority and budget that can be committed to moving from here to there.
  6. What's been attempted in the past to move from here to there but has failed.

Decide, based upon your best understanding of the customer's situation, which areas of inquiry you plan to pursue in this meeting.

Some sales systems suggest writing down the questions that you're going to ask.  This is a bad idea, because reading questions from a list makes you sound like a raw sales trainee.

Instead, write on your notepad some keywords which will remind you of the general line of inquiry that you intend to pursue. Draw a big circle around these keywords so that your eye is drawn to them during the customer meeting.

As you guide the conversation to each keyword, put a big "check mark" next to it.  After the meeting, you can review your notes to determine how much you've learned.

2. Start a conversation not an inquisition. 

While you know what you're trying to find out and you know the type of questions you're going to ask, inundating a customer with an endless stream of questions is a good way to get invited to leave early.

Rather than pepper the customer with questions, let the questions emerge out of the conversation.  Remember: it may take more than one meeting to discover answers to all six of the lines of inquiry.  Patience is virtue, especially when selling.

Unfortunately, professional salespeople are often highly goal oriented so they prefer conversation that moves forward quickly. Because they're anxious to make a sale, they're always poised to ask the next question that can move the sale forward.

But what's the point of asking effective questions if you're not going to listen to the answers?  One of the dumbest things you can do during a sales call is to spend it watching the customer's mouth move while you formulate what you're going to say next.

Instead, really listen to the customer, pause to think about what the customer said, and then decide where you want to conversation to go.  And don't worry about looking dull during the pause.

Chances are the customer will (correctly) interpret the short silence as a sign that you actually are interested in what the customer said.

3. Introduce non-leading, open-ended questions.

Some sales gurus recommend that you ask questions that lead the customer towards whatever you're selling, like "How can our company help your business?"  The idea is that, by answering the question, the customer will envision buying from you.

Unfortunately, customers have been wise to this ploy for decades, so rather than asking leading questions, couch your question in neutral and abstract terms, like: "In a perfect world, what would your vendor be doing for you?

Ideally, your questions should be open-ended, meaning that they can't be answered with a single word.  The best way to ensure you're asking open-ended questions is to start the questions with "How...", What..." or "Why..."

Don't worry about asking a question that is "too open-ended."  If your question isn't specific enough, the customer will ask you to clarify. And then you're already in a conversation, which is half the battle.

Above all, don't jump into "sales mode" if the customer indicates a need that your offering can meet.  Instead, take note of the opportunity and then use further questioning to fill out the lines of inquiry, thereby setting up the conditions under which you might make the sale.

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