Probe – The Most Overlooked Selling Skill

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It seems that many (most?) sales people want to pitch their product from the moment they are introduced to the customer. It’s easy to do. You know your product, you think you know your customer, and you’re convinced that your product will meet all his needs.

But what are his real needs? What is driving his purchase? Did his critical machine break down, crippling his assembly line? Is his boss breathing down his neck to improve something or cut costs somewhere? Is his competition better resourced, forcing his upgrade? Is he out of whatever you’re selling and looking for a cheap replacement? Does he just think it would be cool to have whatever you’re selling?

At this stage, you don’t know. And you don’t know his budget, or his schedule, or even if he is the person making the decision. You don’t know who else he is talking to, and what they have pitched to him. You don’t know, well … pretty much anything.

See the trend here? This early in the sales cycle, unless this is a repeat customer, you are ignorant. And yet you’re acting like you know what he needs or wants or can afford better than the he does himself.

In any sales cycle, information and knowledge are the factors that can set you apart from the competition, give you the edge you need to close the sale. And early in the sales cycle is when you concentrate on these factors because they will define everything you do in later stages. We call this Probing, and it is asking cogent, appropriate, open-ended questions and really listening to the answers.

Cogent because you want to demonstrate that you do know something about him and his company and that you are not wasting his time.

Appropriate because you want to get the information you need without a lot of surplus, and without displeasing the customer.

Open-ended because in sales, yes and no are only important when the award is made. Before that, you want the customer talking so you can listen.

Listen, because otherwise the answer is useless.

That gets you the information, and it is up to you to turn that into knowledge – knowledge you can use to fashion the best possible offer and presentation. In this sense, you’re probing your own knowledge of your products and services, and of your industry in general, and adding the information gained from the customer to develop new knowledge and mix up a batch of success.

Probing requires planning to be sure you know what to ask to cover all the information you will need, and then communication with the customer to provide the forum for the exchange. Almost always, it is better to do that in person, face-to-face. Where face-to-face isn’t possible, real-time, two-way communication such as a phone call is best. As a last resort, or where the customer has made clear his communication preferences, use of a two-way delayed communications such as email or fax or even a letter can suffice.

Probing takes a lot of time. Be prepared to Probe from the start, and to keep Probing until you have the order in hand.

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