I am a powerful believer in the power of questions. A skilled sales person can use questions to steer the direction of a conversation and to reveal the prospect's "hot buttons." Great sales people prefer to ask questions rather than make statements. Research has shown that the more the customer talks, the more likely they are to buy. Questions are the tool that gets them talking.
In addition to revealing the customer's business situation and needs, questions can be used to reveal the customer's motivations and their purchasing patterns. For this purpose I like to use what I call "time warp" or "origin" questions. These are questions that ask the prospect to go "back in time" and tell you why they did something. When I meet a prospect for the first time, I like to ask them, "So, what led you to get into the whatever business?" Their answer tells me a lot about their personality and their goals. If they say, "I like being my own boss, the guy I was working for was doing shoddy work and I like to take pride in what I do," I know that I need to talk to them about promoting quality rather than price. If, on the other hand, they say, "I knew I could beat any body's price," I know to go the other direction. What led them into business, reveals a lot about the prospect and how to sell them.
In competitive situations if you ask a customer why they are advertising in a competitive product, they may see this as a personal challenge. They may think you are attacking the competitive media and therefore attacking their decision to go that route. I find it is far better to say something like, "I'm glad to hear that you see the value of advertising, many of my customers also advertise in the XYZ. Can I ask what led you to go with XYZ?" This accomplishes several things, I defuses a potentially tense situation, it tells the customer that there is no reason that they can't advertise in both media and helps you to uncover their advertising goals. This is a way to gain insight into the thought process they use when purchasing advertising. I often use a follow up question like "You said that one of your goals was to increase your carry-out business. Have you accomplished this?" Rather than challenging the competitor directly, this gets the prospect thinking about the other media's performance.
"Time warp" questions are non-threatening because they take the issue out of context. They force the customer to step back and look at their situation from a distance. These questions can be used to remind customers of their goals and their dreams. Putting them in this frame of mind makes them much more receptive to you ideas on how they can achieve their objectives.
On another note, I recently started a new blog featuring some of my favorite quotes. You can check it out at http://theapothegmatist.blogspot.com/ The first post will explain this blog's rather "geeky" tile. As always, I welcome you comments, feedback and ideas. Thanks for reading.