Successful Sales: The Art of Asking Good Questions

April 22, 2003 - 11:29

Part four in an eight-part series about sales strategies that improve profit.

Last month, we covered the importance of developing a
relationship with your customer. This element of the sales process is a
requirement in order to move forward. As soon as you establish a relationship
and sincere rapport with your customer, you can consider a plan to
differentiate your company from your competitors'.

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

* Yourself. You will
be setting yourself apart from competitors because you listen and understand
what the customer wants.

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

* Your product.
Having a clear understanding of what is important to your customer allows you
to 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 some
questioning basics.

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

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

By "opening up" all questions, you have a greater
chance of learning more about your customer's needs and discovering the
flexibility that will improve your program.

It is essential that you plan your questions in advance. The
first part of this planning is to identify the features and benefits of your
company/product. You must have a full understanding of what you offer compared
to your competitors. Ideally, the strong points of your current offering were
developed in response to specific customer requirements. Consider your
products, delivery, customer service and all other value-added items. An
example of your assessment may be:

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

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

* We provide merchandising support for the programs we
deliver to the stores.

The benefits your program provides will steer the line of
questions you plan to ask. For instance, you would not ask how important it is
to 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 and
benefits, so do not confuse the two in your questioning. Features are
attributes of your product such as a moisture-retaining soil mix or new
varieties. 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 new
and different varieties.

Advanced Questioning

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

Your customer's situation. Asking the right questions will
uncover problems for you to solve or opportunities to be captured. You will be
asking questions such as, "What are some of your issues regarding plant
delivery?" and "What are your plans to increase your most profitable
lines?" The answers to these types of questions allow you to solve
problems or capture new business because of your unique capabilities or your
ability to help the customer capitalize on a fast-moving product. You should

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

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

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

* What are the buyer's personal goals with current

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

* Who are your competitors?

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

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

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

Which Questions to Ask?

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

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

In another case, the retail buyer needed a specific price
point 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's
acceptable profit margin. Sounds like the meeting is over, right? Instead, the
grower asked about price points on other items throughout the year. The
discussion led to specific items that would permit a higher profit margin for
the grower. The resulting program produced orders for a long list of products
over the course of the year, each meeting the retailer's competitive needs and
giving 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 solve
the customer's problems; and

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

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

About The Author

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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