How to Fish for Inside Information

Last Updated Jun 1, 2007 12:02 PM EDT

B2B sales typically involve multiple decision-makers, scores of "influencers"" and a complex buying process. To make the sale, you'll need a roadmap and a rule book, and the only way to get that info is to extract it from your initial customer contacts through persistent questioning. However, if you're not careful, you'll come off like you're giving the third degree or, worse, sound like a clueless job candidate. Here are three suggestions to help you discover what you need to know and still come off as an intelligent professional:

Step 1: Do your research. Never ask a customer a question that you can get answered somewhere else. Before your first customer meeting, dredge through news stories on the web, the company's SEC filings, and the company's Hoover's listing. Familiarize yourself with the basics of the customer's finances and memorize the names of key individuals. That last seems obvious, but I once had an old-school manager who, at a meeting with a major customer, asked "Who the hell was that guy?" after the CEO (who was dressed very casually) dropped in for a quick chat with his negotiating team.

Step 2: Make your questions creative. The hardest thing about this kind of questioning is keeping it from becoming repetitive and boring. (You can only ask "and he reports to who?" so many times before you start sounding like a scratched CD.) To keep the conversation interesting, sprinkle it with questions that have built-in, positive assumptions. For example:

  • "Your industry is in tough economic times, but your company seems to be doing better than everyone else. How do you guys do that so consistently?"
  • "You've obviously developed a wealth of business contacts. What's your secret?"
  • "How did you learn so much about the ins and outs of corporate politics?
This type of question flatters the contact's ego without being smarmy, shows respect for the contact's knowledge and provides an opportunity for the contact coach to expound upon his or her experience. Such questions also provide a change of pace, a smooth launch into a new topic, and are an easy way to build on something the contact just said.

Step 3: Manage your meeting time. If the interview goes well, the last thing you want is to cut the meeting short because you have to leave for another call. However, you don't want to ask for big block of time, because then you're less likely to get the meeting in the first place. Here's what you do. Ask for a short amount of time, but schedule extra time on your calendar to accommodate an extension of the meeting. If you are nearing the end of your allotted time, and the meeting is going smoothly, remind the contact that your time is nearly up. Then ask if he or she would mind extending the meeting a little, as you are fascinated by what you're learning. In most cases, the contact will let meeting continue.

By the way, the above is based upon a conversation I had a few years ago with Mark Shonka and Dan Kosch, co-authors of "Beyond Selling Value â€" A Proven Process to Avoid the Vendor Trap" (Dearborn Trade, 2002). Smart guys. If you're interesting in honing your questioning skills, check out the pointers I gave on questioning a couple of months ago in the blog. They're HERE.