3 Ways to Get Better Information From Sales Prospects

Last Updated Jul 11, 2011 8:16 PM EDT

How does a card shark in a poker game get you to put in all of your chips? He makes you think that you are winning.

Big prospects (I call them "whales") do the same thing. They get you to put in all of your chips -- time, better pricing, free consulting and so on -- by making you think that you are winning in a sales process. In the past, I've written about how expensive it is to hunt whales and how important it is to know if the whale is serious about buying rather than just price shopping or doing market research. If you are going to be successful at whale hunting selling -- large account, complex deal making -- then become a student of great questions.

Great questions elicit great answers. Let's work backwards. Here are the key characteristics of great answers, which should always be your end-goal:

1. Specific: The prospect gets to the heart of the issue.

2. Historic: The prospect reveals past behavior (always the best indicator of future behavior).

3. Narrative: The prospect offers context and emotion in addition to information.

4. Behavioral: The prospect gives you an indication of what he will do, not just his opinions.

5. Vulnerable: The prospect is authentic in conversation.

When crafting questions, you are trying to access a level of knowledge that is deeper, and more valuable than what your competitor is able to get so you can disqualify opportunities up front with confidence and get out of the hunt if it is not a great opportunity for you. You need to know:

  • Is this a real opportunity or a waste of time?
  • Who is the real decision maker?
  • Can we win if we are not the lowest priced?
  • Am I talking to the right people?
  • What will it take to win this business through my proposal?
The problem is that even though these questions are reasonable and straightforward, you cannot get a reasonable and straightforward answer from a whale for all of the reasons we have explained. So how do you get the information you need? You need to ask different questions.

Here are three shortcuts that you can add to almost any question, to make it better:

1. Learn and Teach
Let's take a sample question that you might ask: "Are you ready to make a change in suppliers if you find at the end of our discussions that we can do a better job for you?"

Seems like a reasonable question, but the problem is that the natural answer will be yes -- regardless of the facts. If we're honest with ourselves, we have to admit we have all asked a version of this question only to find out later that we are the better choice, but the prospect stayed with the incumbent. So let's change the question:

"In the last several years when you have made a significant change in suppliers, what did you learn that you are teaching to all of your people?"

  • First, if they cannot answer this question because they have not changed suppliers in the last few years, it is a warning sign that they probably do not change suppliers very often.
  • Second, you know the issues that will drive the decision of the buyers. If you can offer great benefit in those areas, then you have a great opportunity. If you can't, disqualify this prospect and move on to another whale.
  • Third, this question meets many of the criteria of great questions. The prospect will have to tell us a story, give us context, probably reveal emotion, and be specific.
2. Always and Never
This is very similar in nature to Learn and Teach. This question sets the boundaries. Always tells you the must-haves in a proposal, and never tells you the absolute disqualifiers.

Example: "When you are looking at adding a new supplier, what are the qualities they always must have and what are the things that you know are never acceptable to your company?"

With this question, you are establishing the working parameters for your presentation and eventual proposal. Also, you can disqualify those opportunities in which you know you are going to violate one of their key requirements.

3. Time-binding
It is important to put time frames around your questions. Business conditions are changing at such a rapid rate that the circumstances under which your prospect was operating just a short 12-18 months ago are not the same now. When you ask general questions about how a company operates, you often get the kinds of answers that are not recent and therefore not helpful. Frame your questions with:

"In the past year, how has your decision process been working?"

"Since the purchase of your company, how are materials purchases like this one being handled?"

"With the re-organization of the department, who now is most impacted by the types of services my company provides?"

By time-binding the questions, you are able to focus the people to whom you are speaking on the most recent and relevant business environment. You also subtly create a sense that a change might be necessary because of the change in conditions. Finally, you are inviting a story -- the kind of narrative that can give you greater information and context for the sales process.