Selling doesn’t really have rules. Sure, there are guidelines and best practices. But if sales is a dance, it’s jazz, not ballet.
There is, in my opinion, one exception to this: the hard-and-fast rule to focus on your customer.
According to a survey by Salesforce last year, the top 20% of sales teams last year are almost 3x more likely to say they have been focusing on personalizing customer interactions. And 79% of business buyers say interacting with a salesperson who is a trusted advisor is critical or very important.
Shifting your focus and phrasing to your customers’ needs rather than your own will have a direct impact on your close rates.
Becoming a more customer-focused seller isn’t just a switch you can flip. Like anything in sales, it takes time to hone the skills you’ll need to become truly customer-centric. Let’s find out how to start building those skills.
Diagnose Before you Prescribe
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. “Prescription without diagnosis is malpractice.” It’s a part of the American Psychiatric Association’s Principles of Medical Ethics, but it’s become a popular saying in sales.
Imagine for a moment that you walked into your doctor’s office complaining of headaches, and without asking you a single question, they prescribed a dose of some heavy medication such as oxycodone. You would think they were crazy.
Now, imagine how your prospect feels when, after the barest of discovery, you pull out a full battery of high-priced solutions and long-term binding contracts.
They’ll feel like you don’t really understand their issue, and you’ll lose the sale.
In your discovery process, you need to go beyond surface problems to understand the impact those problems have on your customer.
What’s the financial impact?
What’s the personal impact?
How committed are they to solving this problem?
What does the solution look like to them?
How does it work and change and improve their current process?
The difficult part is getting to these deep questions. You can’t exactly jump on a cold call and ask your prospect, “How committed are you to solving this problem?” Well, you could, but you’re likely to hear a *click* soon after as they hang up.
To get to these deep questions, you need three things — research, rapport, and open-ended questions.
Research, Research, Research
Research allows you to create a treasure map to those high-impact answers you’re looking for. It gives you an idea of where you want the conversation to go and how you might be able to get there.
For instance, a 10-K report can tell you a lot about a company’s goals and financial situation. This can give you a good idea of how your specific solution could impact your prospect’s business as a whole.
But you should also do research into who you’re actually talking to. What role are they? How big is their team? What is their past experience?
You can get a lot of this from doing a bit of digging on LinkedIn and social media.
You can then use this research to guide your questioning.
Say, from the 10-K, you learn that the prospect’s company’s stated goal is to increase sales by 15%. And from your social media research, you find out that your prospect is leading a small sales team of 5, and it doesn’t appear like there are any new hires or any job listings out.
Their personal pain point then is likely to revolve around time and resources. So, you may want to lead into questions like, “If our tool could save you X amount of hours each week, what would that do for you and your team?”
The key here is to have a plan before you go into discovery, but then let your prospect fill in the gaps for you.
What you need to be careful of, though, is that you don’t assume you know what your prospect needs after doing this research. This is exactly what we’re trying to avoid.
Focus on Building Rapport
Rapport is probably the most valuable thing you can build up with a prospect, but it’s also the most fragile. One step too fast or one wrong word can ruin it.
The golden rule for building rapport is listening and patience.
You need to truly listen to your prospect, show them that you’re not just here to sell them something, but that you truly care about their problem (We’ll go into more detail about this later in the article).
Patience is the other key to rapport building. You have to earn the right to ask deep questions, and you do that by asking simple ones first.
According to Lanette Richardson, there are three levels of answers that you’ll get from a prospect, and you have to go through each level to get to the next.
The first type of answer you’ll usually get is very flat. So, if you ask, “What is the biggest problem you’re facing right now?” They’ll likely come back to you with something simple, like, “Our customer churn is too high.” And that’s great, but that first level answer isn’t where you’re going to find the true pain point.
So, following Lanette Richardson’s advice, you need to dig deeper.
Ask questions like:
“How is that affecting you and your team?”
“Is this a new problem?”
“Do you already have a plan in place to tackle this problem?”
Then you can dig even deeper into how that is affecting them personally.
By taking things slowly, and taking the time to dig into these questions, you’re building a rapport because you’re showing that you actually care about helping them solve the root problem, and you’re getting deep answers you would never have been able to get at the beginning of the call.
Ask open-ended questions
The questions you ask matter a lot less than how you ask it. After all, your goal in the discovery process is to gain as much information from your prospect as possible. So, you want to make sure that the questions you’re asking are leading the prospect to talk more, not less.
This is why open-ended questions are so important to uncovering pain points.
The rule of thumb here is to never ask a yes-or-no-question or anything that can be answered with one or two words.
So, instead of asking, “Is customer churn a problem you’d like to fix?” ask something like, “Tell me about your customer retention?”
If you’ve done your research and are taking your time to dig into everything your prospect is saying, this step shouldn’t be very difficult.
Know your Product — But Don’t Be an Expert
It may sound like a paradox! But it’ll make sense. Just give me a second.
Know your stuff
Your conversations with prospects will only have real value when your recommendations are tailored and specific. To do that, you need to know the ins and outs of what you’re recommending.
Many larger companies will already have many resources put together by the sales enablement team to help you with that. Or they may have customer-facing tutorials, demos, and resources that you can use to learn more.
If your company doesn’t have the resources readily available for you, take the initiative to do your own research.
Have a couple of lunches (or virtual lunches these days) with someone in product development or customer success. Ask questions about your product — how it works, common mistakes, and new features on the horizon.
If possible, use the product yourself to get a better sense for how it works.
Let them know their stuff
“Your problem isn’t X, it’s Y, and let me tell you how we can fix that.”
If you’ve ever said that, or something similar, you’ve likely fallen into the trap of being the expert.
It’s a common problem, but it can cost you sales.
At a certain point, you’ll feel you understand every problem, know every goal, and have an answer for every objection.
Two sentences into a prospect’s problem, you’ll find yourself connecting the dots and rushing in to sell the solution, but that leads us to the prescription problem we talked about above.
Even if you’re right about the solution, the prospect will think you weren’t listening to them, and it will kill any rapport you’ve built up.
Knowing your product is good, but even if you have the answer, you still need to ask the questions, listen to the answers, and find ways to connect the dots for your prospect.
Similar to what we talked about in the first section, this relies on you asking open-ended questions and guiding the prospect to where you want them to be.
For instance, say you’re selling a tool that makes it easier to book meetings with prospects. You know from all your past experience that your tool leads to an increase in revenue because it saves time and allows reps to book more meetings.
That’s great, but instead of telling your prospect that, you need to lead them to that conclusion on their own.
So, maybe you start by asking,
“How long does it take your reps to book a meeting?” After they give you an answer, dig deeper…
“Why does it usually take that long?” or “How much is each meeting worth to you?”
As you ask these questions, you’re guiding them to one final question where you help them connect the dots between your product and its value…
“How much more money could you make if your prospects were able to book X amount more meetings,” or “if they could book meetings X times faster?”
Now you’ve brought them with you on the journey. You don’t have any more convincing to do because you’ve allowed them to convince themselves.
Be an Active, Engaged Listener
How do you know if you’re a good listener? Listen to your recorded calls.
How often do you talk over your prospect? How often do you answer a question, and then, instead of digging in, return immediately to your previous talk track?
If you’re spending more than 60% of your discovery call or demo talking, then your prospect isn’t being heard or actively participating.
Be fully present and engaged in your prospect’s answer. As salespeople, we often have a bad habit of thinking ahead to our next question, but you need to focus on what your prospect is saying now, and dig into the details.
Ask clarifying questions like, “It seems like you…” or “It sounds like you’re saying…” This gives you a chance to show your prospect you heard them, but 9 times out of 10, this will also prompt the prospect to go into even more detail to clarify their point, giving you valuable information you never would have gotten before.
And sometimes, even when listening, you may have misunderstood. This helps prevent that.
Give your prospect time after they’re done speaking. The rule of thumb is to give them three seconds. This gives them space to continue if they weren’t done talking and, in many cases, will prompt them to continue.
On top of this, it gives you time to think carefully about what you’ll say or ask next.
I could go on, but I’ll leave you with one more fantastic tip.
Take notes during your call and send a follow-up email with those notes. Not only does this give you an excuse to follow-up, it shows that you were listening attentively to everything they said and thinking critically about it.
Be authentically curious.
The more sincere you are in learning about your future customer’s needs, the more open and thorough they will be in answering your questions.
Reframe and Rephrase
The switch from discovery and listening to the prospect’s problems to asking questions about budget and the sale is a delicate, dangerous thing. Do it poorly, and the whole deal can be lost.
You and your prospect both know you’re there to sell a product, but all the rapport and relationship you just built up in the previous steps was to prove to them that you not only want to sell a product, you want to help them.
Don’t prove them wrong now and throw away all that work.
The key here is to deliver your pitch at the right time, with the right words.
Work on your timing
The timing of your pitch, and the related questions, will depend on the type of call you’re on.
In an inbound inquiry, it’s perfectly natural to ask these budget questions upfront as part of your discovery. Why take your buyer through a long journey for a solution that simply isn’t in their budget or isn’t going to be a real focus for another two or three quarters?
In an outbound scenario, my personal opinion is that these questions should only come after you understand the problems and after your customer acknowledges your solution is a fit.
So you diagnose, prescribe, and then ask for acceptance.
Focus on your phrasing
The phrasing is the other important part of this.
Instead of asking what the timeline to make a buy is. Try, “What does your timeline look like for having something up and running?”
Instead of asking to speak to the decision-maker (something that can easily backfire, offend, or create resistance), try this:
“What does the buying process look like on your end? Are there any other stakeholders we need to involve in our discussion?”
Try replacing, “Can I talk with your boss?” with:
“I’m sure your boss is going to have different needs for this than you will. Does it make sense for us to schedule a call with them to answer or any questions or walk them through the solution or quote?”
Asking if someone has the budget to buy what you’re selling can feel awkward. Remember that your prospect knows your products and services come with an associated cost.
Sometimes it’s best to get it out in the open with a customer focussed, open-ended question like:
“How do you typically budget for projects, items like this?” or “Typically, we would discuss price at this time. How much can we realistically budget for this project?”
It Isn’t Easy… But It Is Worth It
All of these techniques are an investment of time and practice. But the benefits of focusing on your prospect’s needs before your own have a real return in dividends.
Sellers who change their methods to selling in a customer-focused way typically report increased revenue, close ratios, and time efficiency.
And that’s worth the time.