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Sales AboutFACE, Inc. | Ottawa, ON

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by Terry Ledden

For some, sales opportunities are becoming fewer and farther apart. When sales desperation meets customer opportunity the chances of actually closing the deal become critically impaired.

Tom was meeting with a prospective client. After some cordial conversation, the prospect asked, "So, what can your accounting firm do for us?" Tom, having been taught not to dump information early in the selling process replied, "At this point, I'm not really sure. Would it be OK if I asked you a few questions to get a better sense of your situation? Then I can talk about the specific aspects of our service that are most appropriate."

Was there anything wrong with Tom's response? He avoided making a premature presentation and asked for permission to "probe" in order to identify the prospect's need. He answered the prospect's question with a text book example of the strategy of answering a question with a question in order to obtain more information and get to the prospect's real underlying question.

So, what did Tom do wrong? In this situation, the prospect's real question was, "What can your accounting firm do for us?" From the prospect's perspective, it most likely looked like Tom deflected the question, like he didn't want to or wasn't prepared to answer. Deflecting the question can cause the prospect to feel manipulated. After all, he asked a question and didn't receive an answer.

There are situations where it is OK to directly answer the prospect's question. The rule is: answer the question when it can't hurt you or it can help you.

It's OK to tell a prospect what you do or how you can help from a conceptual or big picture standpoint. That can't hurt you. What you should avoid is providing detailed explanations for specific solutions to problems that have yet to be fully defined. That will hurt you. There will be plenty of time for specifics and details if the opportunity progresses far enough along for a formal presentation or proposal.

How could Tom have responded so it would help and not hurt his efforts? If he did his homework before the appointment, then he would know which aspects of his company's service are most likely to be of benefit and interest to the prospect. He would then incorporate those elements into his response. Here's an example:

Prospect: "So, what can your accounting firm do for us?"

Tom: "That's a very good question. Typically, when I meet with manufacturing firms like yours, they are most often concerned with two areas: 1) more accurately allocating and amortizing production costs in order to be in compliance with profit reporting standards; and 2) reducing the time and expense of generating quarterly shareholder reports. Which, if either of those, is a concern of yours?"

Tom gave a big picture answer that focused on two areas where his company has special expertise. His answer put the ball back in the prospect's court. Now, it was up to the prospect to decide which area to discuss.

Salespeople working under mounting pressure to generate business often become emotionally driven, resulting in greater concern for the need to make the sale vs. qualifying the validity of the opportunity.  They avoid saying or doing anything they "believe" could jeopardize the deal. Desperate people do desperate things in attempts to get an order, like; convincing, offering concessions, and presenting solutions ahead of developing a valid and underlying basis for doing business from the prospects' point of view.  This may lead to more deals in the hopper which may look good on the surface but only set the salesperson and the company up for disappointment, frustration and even more desperation down the road when these deals ultimately disappear. 

Under economic pressure, the answer to driving more success in sales is more about the questions you ask than it is about your answers.

Terry Ledden is managing partner of Sales AboutFace Inc., an authorized licensee of Sandler Training. He can be reached at

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