Ascertain and Confirm

IT’S THE FIRST meeting with a potential client. Instead of launching into a pre-determined sales pitch you take a consultative sales approach. You use the BRACES process to guide you through the meeting. You started off well by briefly building rapport (‘BR’) to position yourself and your company. Now it’s time to move to the next stage - ascertaining (‘A’) in detail the prospective client’s situation and confirming (‘C’) your understanding. 

As professionals, we understand that questions have to be asked to identify the prospect’s needs and wants. Some of us even prepare a few in advance. But despite all our best efforts, we still fail to get useful and detailed information. The problem is that we bombard the client with information-seeking ‘missiles’. The questions and order in which we ask them may seem ‘logical’ to us, but not to the client. When you start firing off questions, the client is probably thinking – ‘why do you need this information’ or ‘where are you going with this?’ At this point two things can happen. Either the client answers the questions (albeit with brief answers) or worse they say something like “what you can do for us”. Now you’re forced to talk about your service and capabilities without having any real understanding of how they fit within the client’s business.
One way to guide you through the ascertaining and confirming part of the BRACES process is using a funnel. It works as like this:

1. Prepare the client
Before any question is asked, you need to create an environment where the prospective client is willing to talk about their business. Use a ‘stimulator’ to explain why they should spend time giving you information. “As I said earlier, our company has a wide range of services. Instead of talking in generalities I would like to focus our time in areas which could really help your business. While I’ve done some research into your company, by definition this is dated and also indicates little about your future. Therefore, could we start off with me asking a few questions to help me understanding where your company is going? In that way we can focus on our discussion in areas which will create the most value for you?” 

By giving such an explanation before asking the first question, the prospective client will understand why you are asking questions and will hopefully see the benefit in sharing information. At worst, this will at least buy you some time to start asking questions.

2. Ask an open question
Most of us understand the difference between open and closed-ended questions. We also know the value in asking open-ended question. Despite this, we still tend to ask closed questions. It’s easier to ask a closed question, we can get a specific answer to a specific question, people still answer with more than a ‘yes or no’– the reasons are many. Don’t fall into this trap. Your first question should be very general in nature and designed to get the other person to open up and start talking about what’s on top of their mind. Here are a few to consider: What are the key business objectives in the foreseeable future? What is your current organisational structure? What strategy are you considering for sales and marketing?
3. Ask follow-up questions
The prospective client will rarely give you all the information you need based on just one open question. You need to probe deeper. To acquire more detailed information, your questions have to be more specific. Use leading questions to move the conversations to areas you wish to further explore. Use closed questions to get to the details. There are many types of questions you can ask at this stage. What’s important is that you continue to ask questions to get more information on a specific topic. Once you’ve gained a good level of insight into a particular subject, move to another area. Go back to step 2. Ask another open question. 

4. Summarise
The summary is a powerful tool with a number of benefits - you eliminate errors and misunderstanding; it demonstrates to the client that you’ve been listening; and if incomplete the client will usually fill in the gaps and add more information. The summary should not be a parrot repetition of what has been said. Nor is it saying “so all in all, it worked pretty well”. It should be a paraphrased interpretation of the key facts – demonstrating that you heard and understand what has been said. 

Asking questions is an important part of the process. But you also have to listen. Sounds simple. Unfortunately it easier said then done. Here are a few hints to help improve your skills and demonstrate to the client that you are actively listening:

Stay silent – Let the other person talk. Don’t interrupt. As the old adage goes – ‘some people listen, others wait to talk’. Stop forming your response; listen to what the other person has to say.

Use positive body language – A posture of slightly leaning forward, head turned to the side, good eye contact, nodding of the head. All of these give the speaker clear feedback that you are paying attention.

Use encouraging words – Words like ‘really’, ‘go on’ and ‘uh huh’. Just be careful not to overuse any one device. Using ‘you don’t say’ ten times in a row could cause the speaker to reply with ‘yes, I do say!’

Take notes – People have many excuses not to take notes – I want to give the meeting my full attention, I want to maintain eye contact… The fact is that taking notes can actually help keep your mind in the conversation. Not to mention, you are only going to remember a small portion of the meeting. Take notes, but don’t write down everything said verbatim. 

The goal of the funnel process is to ascertain as much information about the client as possible and confirm your understanding. Prepare the client with a stimulator, start the discussion with a good open question, follow up with more questions to build the overall picture, then summarising your understanding. Plan your questions in advance. Have several ready to be used at any time. But after you ask the question, listen to what is said (or what is not said). You have to be flexible. A good meeting should be a free-flowing discussion with the client doing most of the talking. Not a question and answer session. 


Leaving time
Assuming you’ve checked with the prospective client and you have one hour for a meeting, be sure to leave yourself fifteen to twenty minutes to finish the BRACES process. After building rapport (‘BR’), ascertaining (‘A’) the client’s situation, and confirming (‘C’) your understanding, you still need to explore (‘E’) a suitable way forward and seek (‘S’) commitment from the prospect. Explaining and seeking is not the time to launch into a hard sell. It’s about motivating client commitment. Clients buy on their schedule, when they’re ready. It’s not about your sales process, it’s about their buying process.

Research suggests that we understand 10% of a message by the actual words used. 90% is transmitted through the speaker’s tone of voice and body language. Despite most of our understanding coming from things other then the words, it is rare that we reflect this back to the speaker when summarising. Instead of just focusing on the words, show that you understand ‘where the other person is coming from.’ For example, say something like “you are obviously very passionate about this project…” Or, “I sense that you are slightly apprehensive about the next step…” By reflecting in this manner, it tells the other person that you recognise how they feel about the subject. This will go a long way in building empathy, rapport and trust.

Sweep-it up
Once you’ve explored all necessary topics to understand the client and you’ve summarised your understanding, take the time and ask one more question. “Is there anything else which you think I should know?” The question may or may not bring in new information. There is no risk to asking – only potential gains. If the client responds with new information, then continue to ask questions until the client finally says “no, I think that’s everything”. Just be careful not to ask the question too early (for instance after you’ve uncovered one potential issue) or in a repetitive manner (is there anything else…is there anything else…). It’s a great question when asked at the right time in the right manner. The only risk is not asking.

Stop thinking
Besides a lack of interest, the biggest barrier to effective listening is thinking. No one can listen – really listen – and think at the same time. There may be many things going through you mind: a solution to the client’s problem, how you’ve helped other clients in a similar situation, the resources you’re going to need… All of these thoughts will get in the way of you concentrating 100% on the person in front of you. Eventually the client will notice and stop trying to maintain your attention. Don’t let this happen. Concentrate on your client.