Sell, don't tell...

Written by Rick Spence

As sad TV moments go, this ranks with the last episode of Cheers. It’s “Final Jeopardy”, as Alex Trebek reads, “Saskatoon is the largest city in this province.” Contestant A, who has bet all on this question, confidently writes “Saskatchewan” (and perhaps even spells it right). Oops; game over. Says Alex: “You need to put your answer in the form of a question.”

Surprisingly, Trebek’s Law applies in business just as it does on Jeopardy. Whenever you find yourself describing the features and benefits your company provides, just stop, says Toronto-based business coach Willa Schecter. Instead of telling clients what you do, you should be probing their needs through artful questioning.

You sell best when you get clients talking about their needs, says Schecter. So put your pitch in the form of a question: “What departments do you feel would find the most value from this type of initiative? Why? What financial benefits do you see for the organization?”

“We can tell our client about the benefits till we’re blue in the face,” says Schecter. “But until they internalize the benefits and see the value through self-discovery, the odds of them taking action are slim.”

Schecter was one of many PROFIT readers who responded to my November 2004 column on breakthrough questions: simple yet powerful questions that help you sell more, take control and clarify the information you need to make better decisions.

From Collingwood, Ont., customer-service consultant Joan Pajunen offers open-ended questions to help entrepreneurs conduct those critical but tricky job interviews. “I like to help my clients do behavioural interviewing,” Pajunen says. “Repeat a real-life example of a situation that occurs in your business and ask the candidate to explain how she or he would handle the situation.”

She takes her cue not from game-show hosts but Scottish poet Robbie Burns, who urged us to see ourselves as others see us. “It is often telling to ask, ‘If I call for a reference, what will your last boss say about your strengths? And what would your co-workers say about your team-playing ability?'”

From Chase, B.C., retired HR professional Elmer Borneman offers three questions that helped him recruit staff in the hardrock mining industry: “What do you consider to be an acceptable rate of absenteeism (i.e., how many days missed during the year are okay)?” and “Why should we hire you, and what do you know about our company?”

You’d be surprised, says Borneman, how many job applicants believe it’s okay to miss work two days a month. His second question “reveals how much they have prepared for the interview, and whether they are able to think on their feet.”

Asking tough questions, by the way, doesn’t make you a hard case. It just means you see the big picture. “The greatest satisfaction that I have derived in my position,” says Borneman, “has been to see a hire turn out to be a great asset to my employer.”

It was Albert Einstein who said, “The most important thing is to never stop questioning.” His quote is one of many in Questions for Success, a self-published book by Kent Dinning of Markham, Ont.’s Business Results Group. The former Business Development Corp. consultant has collected questions that North America’s top entrepreneurs asked themselves on their way to building their empires. Among his favourites:

  • “Is what I’m spending my time on going to help or hinder me in staying focused and achieving my goals?” — John Sleeman, chairman and CEO, Sleeman Breweries Ltd.
  • “What are our values and what do we believe in?” — Richard Camilleri, former president, Sony Music Canada (now president of CanWest MediaWorks).
  • “How much of your daily time is spent talking with or about your customers and their needs?” — Brian Luborsky, CEO, Premier Salons International Inc.

Eerily, two readers wrote in to praise the same question: the ultimate clarifier. “When I am asked a question that I don’t know how or whether to answer, perhaps because the way it’s phrased shows a misunderstanding, I respond with, ‘Why do you ask?'” says Toronto proofreader Marilyn Hersh. “Once the person explains what he really wants to know, I can give him the information he wants.”

Michael Scott, a banker in St. Catharines, Ont., uses the same reply when clients ask questions about borrowing or interest rates. He says, “Asking ‘Why do you ask?’ is the ideal probe for getting the client to open up, divulge the options they’ve already considered and, most importantly, get into a ‘team’ mode — where the customer feels (and appreciates) that I want to know all the details of what he or she is thinking before I even attempt to answer their questions.”

Scott says the same question can also be applied in hiring situations, performance reviews and conversations with suppliers and auditors. (Note: not recommended for tax auditors.)

But breakthrough questions aren’t always about probing other people. The best question I’ve seen lately is an introspection tool from — of all people — Donald Trump. In his book Trump: How to Get Rich, the real estate magnate turned game-show host says he always asks himself, “What am I pretending not to see?” Sometimes the people we most need the truth from is us.

© 2005 Rick Spence

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com