Successful Sales: The Art of Asking Good Questions By Joe Fox and Gerry Giorgio

Last month, we covered the importance of developing arelationship with your customer. This element of the sales process is arequirement in order to move forward. As soon as you establish a relationshipand sincere rapport with your customer, you can consider a plan todifferentiate your company from your competitors’.

Why is differentiating your business a good thing? When youeffectively communicate how your company is different (better) than yourcompetitor, you have succeeded in establishing a higher value. This positiongives you the opportunity to ask for the price you need to cover your costs andto receive a fair profit margin. The art of asking good questions allows you todifferentiate:

* Yourself. You willbe setting yourself apart from competitors because you listen and understandwhat the customer wants.

* Your greenhouse.Questioning allows you to better understand what vendor-provided servicescustomers value, giving you the opportunity to present how your company can addvalue.

* Your product.Having a clear understanding of what is important to your customer allows youto present the full value of your product.

Question Basics

You are now at a critical part of the selling process:asking good questions. But you cannot just start asking whatever comes to mind.To prepare you to ask the right questions, you need to understand somequestioning basics.

The strength of good questions lies with your ability tolisten, both before and after the question is asked. You have to listen to thecustomer to know what questions to ask, then you have to listen to their responseto know what follow-ups to ask.

Your objective is to uncover important and usefulinformation. So you must ask questions in a way that encourages your customerto talk at length. Avoid asking questions that only require a one-wordresponse. Ask open-ended questions that require lengthy answers.

By “opening up” all questions, you have a greaterchance of learning more about your customer’s needs and discovering theflexibility that will improve your program.

It is essential that you plan your questions in advance. Thefirst part of this planning is to identify the features and benefits of yourcompany/product. You must have a full understanding of what you offer comparedto your competitors. Ideally, the strong points of your current offering weredeveloped in response to specific customer requirements. Consider yourproducts, delivery, customer service and all other value-added items. Anexample of your assessment may be:

* We produce a quality product and have quality controlsthat ensure high standards at the point of shipping.

* Our order fulfillment and distribution is structured toservice all store locations within 24 hours of receiving all orders.

* We provide merchandising support for the programs wedeliver to the stores.

The benefits your program provides will steer the line ofquestions you plan to ask. For instance, you would not ask how important it isto have a high percentage of new varieties if your mix includes few new items.Instead, you might ask about the importance of having the latest color trends,since you have already added this aspect to your line.

Remember, there is a big difference between features andbenefits, so do not confuse the two in your questioning. Features areattributes of your product such as a moisture-retaining soil mix or newvarieties. Benefits are what the customer will get out of using your product,such as less shrinkage because of your soil or increased sales by carrying newand different varieties.

Advanced Questioning

Here are some of the more important areas of questions tohelp differentiate your programs and establish value in your customer’s eyes.

Your customer’s situation. Asking the right questions willuncover problems for you to solve or opportunities to be captured. You will beasking questions such as, “What are some of your issues regarding plantdelivery?” and “What are your plans to increase your most profitablelines?” The answers to these types of questions allow you to solveproblems or capture new business because of your unique capabilities or yourability to help the customer capitalize on a fast-moving product. You shouldknow:

* Who is their competitor and what sets them apart fromcompeting stores?

* What growth goals are in place for the store or thedepartment?

* How is this buyer measured by their superior? (If you canhelp them improve their personal position within the company, your value tothat person has increased.)

* What are the buyer’s personal goals with currentresponsibilities?

Your situation. Because you are in a more informed positionwhen you know how you measure up to your competitors, some of your questionsshould focus on your own situation. For example:

* Who are your competitors?

* What do your competitors do well? What do they not do sowell? (The answers to these two questions give you great insight on how to growyour program with this customer.)

* Where do you stand relative to your competitors? Are youthe lead supplier or somewhere in the back?

The other questions critical to your progress are whoexactly will be involved in a decision to buy your product, and how is thepurchase decision made. After all, your goal is to influence the buyingdecision, and this cannot be done unless you fully understand it.

Which Questions to Ask?

You will probably not have the opportunity to ask all theimportant questions in one visit. Plan for successive sales calls, buildingyour understanding of the customer and the value points that are important. Weknow a number of growers who have achieved a level of success using thisapproach.

One grower dealing with a regional chain always asks hisbuyer how he is personally measured in his role as a decision maker, as thesemeasurements can, and do, change. One year, the buyer’s performance measurementwas increased turn- over. The following year, the focus was reducing shrink.Your program and product offering can easily be altered to address the changingneeds of the buyer.

In another case, the retail buyer needed a specific pricepoint for a high-volume spring crop to meet his competitor’s advertised price.The wholesale price that was needed from the grower was below the grower’sacceptable profit margin. Sounds like the meeting is over, right? Instead, thegrower asked about price points on other items throughout the year. Thediscussion led to specific items that would permit a higher profit margin forthe grower. The resulting program produced orders for a long list of productsover the course of the year, each meeting the retailer’s competitive needs andgiving the grower the annual profit picture he required.

Good questions lead to:

* effective differentiation of your products and programs;

* further enhancement of the relationship by helping solvethe customer’s problems; and

* positioning to present the significant value elements ofdoing business with your company.

Next month’s article will focus on how to best use theinformation that you discovered in questioning the customer.

Joe Fox and Gerry Giorgio

Joe Fox is marketing director and Gerry Giorgio is creative director with MasterTag, Montague, Mich. If you have questions about this article or about sales in general, they can be reached by phone at (231) 894-1712 or E-mail at

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