One of the most difficult and feared situations in selling is getting hit with hard to answer questions early in the sales process. Questions such as: "Why should I buy from you?" and "What makes your product better than your competitor's?" For most salespeople these questions are an irresistible invitation for what I refer to as the "Presentation Trap," an open invitation from the customer to "tell me all about your product." Most salespeople jump at the opportunity and declare why their company is better than the competition's and in most cases this wastes time for both the customer and the salesperson.

The exceptional salesperson will turn even the toughest questions into an opportunity to help their customer and themselves more clearly understand the situation and determine if their solution is actually a fit. They recognize the key thought -- "Prescription without Diagnosis is malpractice."

To demonstrate this, think about how a doctor would respond to a question from a patient, before the doctor has completed a diagnosis. The patient asks, "Why should I choose you for my surgery?" The doctor's response would likely be: "I'm not sure that you should. There are many fine surgeons here at the hospital and at this point I don't know enough about your condition to recommend surgery or if I would be the right surgeon for the job. Let me ask you this..."

The doctor's response addressed the question in a very professional manner. It also positioned the doctor to answer the question in a detailed fashion. How can we apply this approach to your customer's challenging questions? There are three key steps to consider:

  1. Acknowledge that the question is on your mind as well.
  2. Indicate how you intend to answer the question.
  3. Ask the diagnostic question that will begin your clarification.

Here's how the conversation might proceed:

Customer: "What makes your product better than competitor A or B?"

Salesperson: "They both make a high-quality product and at this point I'm not sure that I understand your situation well enough to be comfortable suggesting which one of us might be the best fit for you. To determine who might be the best fit, let me ask you this, have you noticed..."

We refer to this type of question as an "Indicator Question." An Indicator question asks the customer if they have observed physical evidence that would tell you your customer's performance is at risk due to the lack of your solution. An indicator is a physical sign they can observe or experience. It is tangible proof of an existing condition that your solution can address.

Consider a software solution that enables hospitals to improve the accuracy of their requests for government reimbursement. An indicator question could be: "Have you noticed any variance in the way your nurses are coding patient procedures?" The answer typically is "Yes." The next question is, "Are you seeing more variation in the coding of your inpatient or outpatient procedures?" If they respond with either, the next question is, "Are you seeing the variance in the multi-procedure cases as well?" By now you get the picture; the customer and salesperson are engaged in a conversation that is diagnostic in nature and helps the customer think through what they are experiencing. Notice that we are no longer talking about solutions, we are discussing the customer's experiences.

The power of this approach, which is the opposite of what the customer would expect, is that it sets you and the customer in agreement and jointly looking for the answer. You will find yourself in a collaborative process with you positioned as the trusted advisor.

At this point you've successfully taken a premature question, and built credibility through your response and follow-up diagnosis. From your customer's perspective, you're standing out from the crowd and guiding them to a quality decision. What you have achieved is a strong competitive advantage and likely a great sale as a result.

So the next time you feel like jumping into presentation mode, consider one of the key steps taken above. You will build more credibility through the questions you ask than the stories you tell.