PROBES: Uncovers real Customer needs using smart questions

PROBES: Uncovers real Customer needs using smart questions

“Customers don’t want trucks” said Mr. M, smiling at the thumbnails of faces on his computer screen

Coming from the CEO of TT Trucks (TTT) this was a stunner to his audience of Sales Managers and Product team

“Sir, are you referring to the Covid 19 impact on the trucking and logistics business in India?” asked the Head of Product Design

“Yes and no” said M, with a touch of mystery “Let me explain. Yes, Covid 19 has had a devastating impact on trucking industry. But that’s a challenge every industry and business, both big and small are battling. The good news for us is that trucking could be likened to the vascular system in an economy, keeping the circulation of goods going. There are studies showing that trucking in India recovered over 40% of pre-COVID activity levels within just over a month of the lockdown. This will certainly improve with more goods being manufactured and moved. But my larger worry is whether we are understanding the emerging needs of the post Covid market”

“Can you elaborate on that Sir?” asked the National Head of Sales

“I think my point is best illustrated with a story from my initial days in sales. That experience taught me what Customers want is not trucks but a cost-effective system that moves ore from their mines on time. I talk about mines because Deep Earth Mines and Ores (DEMO) was a key relationship with a 20% share in my company’s topline. It was a young mine with offtake rising sharply. What we didn’t realise was that their existing fleet built almost entirely with the 10 ton dumpers we had supplied was proving inadequate . Our KAM team, in which I was a key RM, had been meeting them up regularly. Yet, we learnt suddenly through our market sources that DEMO had bought a new dumper from the competition.

Worried, if there were any quality issues with our vehicles, I took our product team to DEMO Mines, only to be told that they have bought a 16 tonner for immediate use. Given their offtake levels, it made economic sense for them to buy a 16 tonner, as that could cut down the number of sorties per day. DEMO figured it would rein in fuel costs, maintenance, driver salaries, insurance and a whole lot of other fixed expenses.

You know what was most tragic? The monumental tragedy was that we had 16 tonners to offer off our shelves and still let the competition nibble at our business. If only we hadn’t got fixated on pushing the 10 tonners! What had stopped us from asking the Customer “What are your current challenges?” or “Given the increasing production in your mines, how are you planning to meet your transportation needs?” Nothing. But it never occurred to us”

“Sir, I think we get what you are trying to tell us” said the National Head of Sales

“Which is?” asked M, smiling

“This Sir. That we should be mindful about constantly asking questions to our Customers to understand their evolving needs. For example how to address health security of truck drivers, so that they aren’t exposed to the dangers of COVID-19 could be a priority”

“Spot on” said M “And many more such new and real needs. Questioning for understanding will be the way forward”

Probes – Using Questions as passwords for sales success

In a world where answers are a mouse click away, questions represent power. And so it is for salespeople. You may have a block buster sales presentation under your belt. It is of no help unless you identify what the Customer really wants, what solution will meet that need and what value it will create for him. Here is where probing with questions do a lot of work.

For a salesperson, probing through questions:

• Helps identify Customer need – I won’t buy if I don’t know what I want

• Gets information on a context, situation or customer profile – Immersive understanding: More you know, better the pitch

• Enables understanding Customer as a person – People buy from people

• Generates a two-way conversation – Presentations inform, conversations sell

• Makes Customer think – I think therefore I buy

• Creates buffer time to think – Hit the pause button: Think and respond

3 Basic Question Types and Smart ways to them in probing Customer needs

It is common knowledge that questions are of two types – Open and Closed. In a sales context, open questions are used to gather information while confirmations and decisions are obtained through closed questions. Getting a little more granular, open questions can be neutral or leading.

Here is a summary of three basic question types and how they can work for you:

(i) Open neutral questions (ONQs) – Open neutral questions are good for building rapport as they invite long, uninfluenced responses. For instance, “What do you think about Mumbai?” is a great start to get someone to warm up to a nice conversation

Key words – What, Where, Why, How, Who, When, Which

Tip – While ONQs are wonderful to start and keep a conversation going, they are likely to elicit long responses. All the content in such responses may not be relevant to the sale on hand. This is a test of the salesperson’s communication skills. You should look for the pearl in the oyster and gently steer the conversation towards matters connected to the sale. Help is at hand. That is where the next type of questions come in for use

(ii) Open leading questions (OLQs) – Open leading questions are also likely to generate long answers. And, the good news is that the answers are likely to be in the direction where we want the conversation to go. “What do you think about traffic challenges of Mumbai?” could be a follow up to the example above so that the conversation gets more specific and narrows down to Mumbai’s traffic conditions

Key words – What, Which

Tip - OLQs send a message to the other side – “Here is an open question but tell me only about ….”

(iii) Closed questions (CQ) – Closed questions are helpful to guide the conversation towards a tangible decision. These are likely to produce short, influenced answers often no more than a “yes” or a “no”. “Is Mumbai still a good city to live?” is an example of a CQ which can follow the first two above

Key words – CQs usually begin with “Are”, “Can”, “Do”, “Have”, “Is”, “Am” (“Are you in town tomorrow?” “Can you send us the invoice?” “Do you drive a diesel car?” “Is it a good time to speak?” “Am I making myself clear?”)

Tip – CQs are valuable to check for feedback throughout the sale process. “Does it make sense?”, “Can I bring you the term sheet then?”, “Is there anything else?” are CQs typically used at various points of the sale process

To understand what’s going on in your Customers’ mind, probe with Questions

While every salesperson agrees with this, the truth, however is that a salesperson’s questions often come across self-centric rather than Customer-centric. Selling what I have becomes more important often, than selling what the Customer needs.

You can never be sure if such salespeople first understand the Customer’s need and then try to fill that need with the relevant product and service. Or, if they simply aim to fulfil an assumed need, as happened in the our story when M’s company kept pushing 10 tonner dumpers to the young mine.

Therefore the time tested axiom in selling is: Never present a feature unless the need is clear. And the only way to uncover the real needs of the Customer, is to practice the skills of curious questioning and active listening. That’s the road to resilient sales

Possible solution for the story situation – TTT’s Sales and Product teams should use the 3 Way Test to Understand Real Customer needs (See Anchor Practice below)

Anchor Practice: 3 Way Test to Understand Real Customer needs

To help zero in on the real need of the Customer, put it through the following 3 way test

1. Is it a need as recognized by the Customer

2. Is it a need not just for a product, but a need in the usage of product (Ex: “Nobody wants a drill bit, they want a hole”)

3. Is it a need as shaped by preferences of the Customer as an individual (Ex: Even in B2B purchases need to make the purchaser look good in the eyes of the rest of the organisation)

Pause to reflect:   "In a world where answers are a mouse click away, questions represent power. And so it is for Salespeople".

Action Question:  “How can you use the 3 basic question types and 3 way test to understand real Customer needs to create a winning sales conversation in your next call?

Related Readings: Mercuri Insight Document on Understanding Customer needs … The power of asking questions

Takeaway Quote:  "Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing" – Benjamin Franklin

About the series:   This is the 76th in a series of 100 Posts that seek to build your #Sales Resilience ... as an individual salesperson, as a sales team, and as a sales organization. Because a Resilient India needs Resilient Sales.


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