When You Don’t Have An Answer, Ask This


(By James Bahm) Experience is an excellent teacher. The lessons it teaches come from anywhere and everywhere.

Work in sales for more than two minutes and you will be asked a question to which you won’t have an immediate answer. You pause, searching for the right thing to say — wondering, fidgeting, looking around the room, maybe even thinking about changing the subject.

We’ve all been there. I know early in my career I would stumble my way through this, often wishing a sales manager was with me to step in and save the day.

Sometimes these questions are asked to see how you overcome the underlying objection (keep in mind that objections are restated needs). Maybe previous people in your industry did things wrong (quite possible, depending on what you do). Perhaps it’s one of a hundred other root causes that are prompting them to ask.

It’s important to understand:

1. It’s not personal.
2. They’re trying to communicate an underlying need.

The next time you’re asked a question and you need time to think, pause, take a deep breath, smile, and say what one of my previous sales managers taught me: I’m glad I’m here. What makes you ask?

It’s a softer, less intrusive open-ended question than asking them why they’re asking.

Finding the “what” will lead you, hopefully, to uncovering the motivation behind the question. It also gives them the opportunity to continue talking, and when you’re in sales you want your clients to talk. And talk. And talk. The more they talk, the more information they will share.

I’ve spent a long time in broadcasting, both in sales and on-camera/on-air. Whenever I’ve interviewed an athlete or entertainer or business owner, I’ve asked a few open-ended questions and allowed them to talk. People love to talk. They want to talk. They want to feel respected, appreciated, and valued.

A previous co-worker used to preach, “The more they talk about them, the more they talk!” That is true in any situation, especially sales.

Good sales professionals ask questions, then ask another one to dig deeper.

In his book Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss says that mirroring is a great way to get them to keep talking. Mirroring, he says, is repeating the last one to three words they said and making it sound like you’re asking a question.

Good doctors do this. When I go to the doctor, they ask so many questions (usually by repeating a few words I just said) to get me to describe what brought me in that I feel like I’ve talked too much! Now go back to a good buying experience you’ve had. How did the salesperson make you feel? Did the sales person ask you a lot of questions?

What if your client/prospect says something that you need more information on, or that you don’t particularly agree with? A great way to get them to talk further and expand on their thoughts is by asking, “How so?”

The last thing I want to do is cause my client to get defensive. Since learning to implement these questions in my day-to-day conversations, no client has been insulted or become defensive. They’ve all opened up and continued talking.

Bottom line: Keep your clients engaged and show them how much you value their words by asking thoughtful questions that uncover their needs.

Question to ponder: What questions work for you to keep your clients engaged to further the conversation?

James Bahm is a 25-year broadcasting professional, an advertising and marketing resource, and owner of The Bahm Consulting.


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