The Most Powerful Question in Sales (and 3 Ways to Use it)
“What should I do?”
As a sales leader, my reps would often ask me to weigh in on their deal strategies.
“The customer is interested in our solution and I’m trying to figure out how best to position our value.”
“I’m putting together a presentation for their executive team and want to make sure it’s high-impact.”
“The customer came back and said they’re looking at a competitive product that’s much cheaper than ours.”
For me, these strategic discussions were always one of the most fun parts of the job…but having had thousands of these conversations over the years, I found that 90% of the time the first question out of my mouth back to the rep was exactly the same:
“What problem is the customer looking to solve?”
What I soon realized was that this universal refrain was one of the most powerful questions in sales for three reasons:
- It puts the focus squarely on the customer and their problem (not your solution)
- It encourages and exposes alignment between customer stakeholders
- You can use it in so many places in your sales cycle.
To expand on item 3, consider these three scenarios where the use of this simple question can be so powerful:
1. The Qualification:
During the qualification process, a good sales rep assesses the fit between the customer’s needs and their solution. While the rep understands that most sales cycles take time and involve a series of steps, this first phase is critical to understanding how to position the value of their solution and set the tone for the engagement—or even pull out of the deal if they don’t feel there’s a fit (video tip: “This isn’t for everyone:).
To help sales reps along, we craft lists of discovery and qualification questions—tools designed to both uncover our customer’s strategic and operational pains and foreshadow our ability to solve them. Unfortunately, these questions can often be too leading and solution-centric (e.g. “Would it beneficial to reduce complaints from your employees when it comes to their pay not being calculated properly?” “Do the customers whose networks you manage to get frustrated when they discover issues before you do?”). When customers feel like they’re being led into a logic trap or that their freedom to say “no” has been restricted, they withdraw (a psychological principle known as reactance). When that happens, customers may still answer our questions, but their insights will often lack depth, insight, and potentially be counterfeit. As a result, we may not come away with the valuable business context we were after.
Looking at the qualification process through the lens of “What problem are they looking to solve?” before, during, and after the conversation changes that.
It helps us reconcile pains in a customer-centric context and provides us with helpful insights to craft our deal strategy (or graciously walk away if it turns out we aren’t able to solve their problem). In fact, I often ask this question directly to customers. Not only is it a perfectly acceptable discovery tactic but its simplicity is very refreshing for customers who get regularly get bombarded with unnecessarily sophisticated questions.
Net-net: if you don’t come away from a discovery or qualification process knowing what problem the customer is looking to solve (in their language), you’ve wasted your time.
2. The Presentation / Second Meeting:
Good reps know that a big part of the sales presentation or second meeting (post qualification) is demonstrating your knowledge of the customer’s business environment. Showing that you’ve listened and demonstrated how your solution can specifically meet the customer’s needs not only establishes value in that solution but in yourself as a sales professional. That’s why the presentation stage is also a perfect time to flex the most powerful question in sales!
One technique that works great for this is to include a slide (or even simply a talk track) early in the second meeting entitled “What we heard” or “Your current state“. Here, you lay out the specifics of what you’ve learned about their business in the context of the problems they’re looking to solve (e.g. “We heard that you’re looking to grow your business aggressively this year, which includes adding lots of new staff. You want these new people to be productive quickly so they can start driving revenue and servicing customers, but right now you don’t have a consistent way of onboarding new employees and setting clear goals for their first 30, 60, and 90 days.”)
After you’ve delivered the content, pause, and ask the audience if your understanding of the problems they’re looking to solve aligns with theirs. By doing this you’ll build massive credibility for having listened intently the first time and gain new insights you can quickly incorporate into the rest of your presentation.
Bonus impact: Oftentimes, these post-qualification presentations include additional stakeholders that haven’t been as involved with you or your solution until now. By framing your pitch in the context of the business problems they’re looking to solve, you’ll promote a more frictionless sales cycle by making new participants comfortable with your approach from the outset.
3. The Defense:
When dealing with customer objections, this powerful question can be extremely helpful. Particularly when it comes to reminding customers of the cost of delaying or selecting the wrong solution.
For example, suppose you’ve established that you have a well-differentiated solution that’s a great fit for the problem your customer is looking to solve. A new full-size SUV, for example, for your client: a family of five with three young children who told you they hated the thought of getting a minivan. Over the course of the sales cycle, you established that the family preferred your particular SUV not only because it was the safest and stylish on the market, but it was uniquely able to fit three car seats across the back row (key for them). You were also able to structure the payments to fit within their monthly budget. Then, in the final stages, the buyer comes back referencing competitive pressures from another manufacturer offering a similar vehicle.
In this case, the most powerful question in sales can be used as an awesome defense (i.e. holding your price point and underscoring the value of your solution) by diplomatically getting the customer to refocus on the problem they were looking to solve, i.e. “It seems as though you were looking for an SUV that was rated highest in safety and could fit three car seats across the back row. I know there are other SUVs on the market, but this is the only one that meets all of those criteria. Did something change?”
This tactic works especially well in the face of the dreaded “do nothing” option salespeople so frequently see. You’ve positioned a great solution with a compelling ROI when the customer comes back and tells you they’ve decided to hold off and do nothing. “Hey, no problem, but if you don’t mind me asking. We’ve been talking about helping you address these problems and put together a compelling business case. What changed?”
While in some cases you’ll be successful at turning the tide in your favor, in all cases you’ll gain valuable insights that will help you better service that customer now or in the future.
Whether you’re in the initial or final stages of the sales cycle and whether you’re a sales rep or manager, promoting a continuous focus on helping your customer solve their key problems is always a winning strategy. Just remember to ask the most powerful question early and often!
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