I had the pleasure of joining my partner today on a conference call with a prospective customer. This is about the fourth such call she has had with this customer. It is a substantial opportunity for us, and of course in an opportunity of this size, the customer is speaking with a group of potential suppliers. The initial group was large -- 12 great companies looking for an edge -- but it always narrows down to the preferred choice. In this case it was Prime Resource Group.

Today I heard this customer say those critical words, "Quite frankly, you guys are asking a lot of questions that I haven't heard from the others. You've helped me think this through and, in fact, you have really caused me to change my thinking on my entire approach."

Let me share with you one of my "Key Thoughts": You will gain more credibility through the questions you ask than the stories you tell! It's one of those simple nuggets of information that, when applied, can make a great impact on your business.

As unique as you and I might think our solution is, it may look very much the same to a pre-sale customer when they first look in on us. (Notice how I have been using the word customer. We refer to all people we are in discussions with as customers -- if we are talking to them, we expect to be delivering value pre- and post-sale.) We all want to stand out and we all want to help our customer understand we can deliver the highest value, and of course be the best choice. The problem is, most potential customers simply don't recognize that value or even believe it if it's presented to them. How most salespeople set out to accomplish that differentiation is by "presenting" and "telling" their stories. The problem is, all the stories sound the same. They not only don't set us apart, they actually reinforce to the customer that we are all the same.

In our customer example, we had reached Level 4 on the communication value scale, but let's look at the levels and watch the progression toward a very quality engagement.

The first level on the scale actually creates "Negative Value." This occurs when you are speaking with a customer; the conversation is pleasant, perhaps you're talking about business, sports, family, etc. The time flies fast, the conversation ends, and the next appointment is made. Meanwhile, the customer realizes he has just lost 40 minutes in a very busy day. What are the chances that this customer will be looking forward to the next "visit?"

Level 2 is referred to as "Confirming Value." In this conversation the customer is investigating something, or has some ideas about what they would like to do regarding their situation or action plans they should be making. During the conversation we are able to confirm or reinforce their ideas. We provide an "outside opinion" that assures them that they are on the right path. This certainly provides value.

Level 3 takes us to the "Additive Value" level of communications. This customer is searching for answers. They know what they are looking for and might even know where to find it. When you enter into the conversation and provide them with the information they require, you have helped them get it with less time and effort. This represents a valuable conversation and one that will place you high on this customer's list of valued resources.

I believe the ultimate level of value a conversation can bring is the fourth level, "Innovative Value." Level 4 is about asking questions that cause the customer to think about his situation in a different way. This causes the customer to connect or associate elements of his business in a way he hasn't before. This is the level of true collaboration. You help your customer see the problem or challenge in a new light. You bring welcomed clarity to complex scenarios and instill confidence in your customer that you really understand his situation and objectives, and that you and your solution will be the best path to his success.

The great thing about Level 4 is that the customer will tell you when you've reached it. You will hear your customer say things like: "That's a very good question," or "I haven't thought about that before," or "I would never have connected those elements." When you are at Level 4, you are bringing your customer solutions he knows he would not have thought of himself and you become the preferred partner. It becomes very apparent that your competitors are not communicating at this level and you have clearly set yourself apart.

Starting today, make achieving "Level 4" a goal of every conversation. You'll be rewarded with your customer's respect and their business.