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How to Uncover Customer Needs

One of the biggest challenges that any sales pro faces is figuring out what the customer really needs. The only way to do this is to ask questions, but that can be challenging, especially if the customer isn't being very helpful or doesn't have much time. During a sales call, you want to make the most of the time that you've got, so here are some guidelines to keep the process moving along quickly:

Guideline #1: Plan your questioning beforehand. Always take a few minutes prior to a sales call to plan out the types of questions that you're going to ask. Review your relationship with the customer and identify gaps in your understanding of the customer's business and overall business direction. Then decide the general questioning areas that you're going to pursue.

Guideline #2. Target your questions appropriately. There are six "lines of inquiry" that can help you understand exactly where the customer may need new software:

  1. What is the current state of the customer's business?
  2. What is the desired state of the customer's business?
  3. What challenges prevent the customers business moving from 1 to 2 above?
  4. Which business and personal motivators that influence the final decision?
  5. What are the resources, authority and budget that can be committed to moving from 1 to 2?
  6. What in the past has been tried (but failed) to move from 1 to 2?
Guideline #3: Have a conversation, not an inquisition. Don't try to extract too much information at one time. Instead, get answers over the course of a series of meetings. For new accounts, you should strive to find out as much as the customer will tell you. For existing accounts, pick one or two lines of inquiry and set a goal to get good answers for at least one of them.

Guideline #4: Don't rehearse your questions. Have a clear idea of the type of questions that you're going to ask but don't sound canned and rehearsed. Rather than writing out entire questions prior to the meeting, write down some keywords that will remind you of the general type of questions that you want to ask. Then it will seem more natural when you ask them.

Guideline #5: Listen (really listen!) to the customer. Sales professional tend to be goal oriented and thus prefer conversations that move quickly. Don't spend valuable "face-time" watching the customer's mouth move while you think of what to to say next. Instead, really listen to the customer, pause to think about what the customer said, and then decide where you want the conversation to go.

Guideline #6: Ask leading questions in the abstract. Avoid ridiculously obvious questions like: "Have you ever thought of buying a product like ours??" Instead, couch questions in neutral and abstract terms that allow the customer "room" to give you the information that you need. Example: "In a perfect world, what would your current vendor be doing to help you?"

The above is based on a conversation with W. Wayne Turmel, manager of instruction for the sales training firm Communispond. As usual,though, I've tempered it with a dash of my own experience.