HAVE YOU EVER asked a business executive their attitude towards suppliers in the market? If so, chances are you heard “they don’t understand my business.” Your perception may be different, but what you think doesn’t matter. Since the client signs the cheque, it’s their perception that counts. As a professional, you’re under great pressure to really understand the client. In fact, you’re probably competing against people who come from the industry you’re targeting – giving them the inside scoop. To succeed today, you can’t afford to be accused of not understanding your client’s business.
Asking questions is an important part of this learning process. But in isolation, it’s not enough. You also have to know the right questions to ask. In general, there are two broad groups of questions you should be asking – business questions and commercial questions.
For any business, the decision to use professional services must be justified on a rational and logical basis. Clients are unlikely to invest in services which don’t add value. Before knowing where you fit in, you need to understand your client. A prospective client may want to be more cost-effective, provide better service to their customers, increase business volume, make more informed decisions, or increase their competitiveness.
These are all examples of business issues. Based on your area of expertise, ask questions that specifically focus the conversation towards issues you can address. For instance: “what are your biggest IT challenges”, “what are the key issues in driving staff turnover”, “what plans do you have to increase brand awareness”. All of these are great questions. Create your own list. But don’t just ask one question. For each issue, you need to understand the size and potential impact as it relates to the future direction of their business. You can’t solve problems of the past, and problems of today are probably already being addressed. Your opportunity is in the unfilled, unresolved and unaddressed issues on the horizon.
Asking business questions may be relatively easy for some of us – after all, we have a genuine interest in helping our clients. However, there is another set of questions which we don’t ask or at least tend to avoid – these are the commercial questions. There are five commercial areas to explore as it relates to the opportunity at hand:
1. The Basis of the Decision
Too often we guess as to what is important to the client when appointing one supplier over another. We read into the gist of our conversations. Sometimes we’re right, sometimes we’re wrong. If you ask the client what’s important to them, they’ll probably come back with a generic non-answer: “We want someone who is responsive, offers good service and is competitively priced.” Take each item and funnel down by asking more questions. For instance, “When you say ‘responsive’, what exactly are you looking for and how would you see it being demonstrated?” Also, recognize that corporate decisions are influenced by individuals. Ask the person you’re meeting with: “Of these criteria, which is most important to you?”
2. The Budget Issues
This is probably the most difficult area for professionals to explore. How many times have you seen a client’s face showing horror when they reach the page of your proposal where fees are outlined? You submit a proposal for $200,000 when the client was thinking of something in the $50,000 range. Some clients may not have a budget allocated or they may take the ‘that’s for me to know’ approach. Give the client a good reason why you need this information: “We could approach this project in a number of ways… For instance one key factor in developing the proposal will be based on the budget you’ve allocated”. Another way is more direct: “What sort of investment do you have in mind for this work?” You may not get the real answer, but you have to try.
3. The Competitive Situation
The most important issue in your sales and marketing mix is your positioning as it relates to your competitors. You are not working in a vacuum. In most situations, your potential client has other options to choose from. Ask your client a simple question: “What other alternatives are you considering to help resolve this issue?” The key word is ‘alternatives’. Alternatives can be your competition, using internal resources, or maybe even going without. Know what you’re up against. This will help you formulate the positioning of your product or service in relation to the competition.
4. The Timeline
How many times have you worked late on a proposal only to find out afterwards that the client wants to the project to start next year? If you fall into this trap you are more concerned about the selling process, then the client’s buying process. There are three points in time that are important: when the client want outputs from the project, when the project will start, and when the final decision will be made. Many times your clients will not have thought through the timescale. By bringing it up, not only are you demonstrating your credibility, you can avoid the ‘hurry up and wait’.
5. The Decision Making Process
If anyone tells you they are the sole decision maker, be wary. In business today, most decisions are made in groups. Very rarely is there one MAN – the person with the Money, Authority, and Need. Work to uncover the process the client will go through before a decision can be reached. Unless the client is trying to hide something, they will usually walk you through the steps. Find out who will be involved in the decision, at what stage they will get involved and what their biggest concerns are. Once you begin to understand the decision making process, it may become evident who has the final say.
Asking the right questions is an important part of your selling process. It also goes a long way in understanding the client’s buying process. It may not be appropriate to ask all of these questions during the first client meeting, but having a solid understanding of the client’s business and the commercial issues is vital. Explore these areas. Afterwards, you will be able to formulate a plan and position your final proposal for maximum impact. In the end, it’s about increasing your chances of winning the business.
TIPS TO WIN
Avoid multiple choice questions
“What is your business strategy for the next five years? Will you expand into new markets, focus on niche opportunities, or grow by acquisition?” A sales meeting is not a TV game show so don’t ask multiple choice questions. Why do we ask multiple choice questions? We’re not sure the client understands the question, we don’t like silence when the client is thinking so we continue talking by expanding on the question, or we want the client to agree with us so we give them clues to get the ‘correct’ answer. Whatever the reason, multiple choice questions are a poor way to get information. The client may answer your question, but only in the area they want to address. Or worse, they respond with a short answer that doesn’t give you any new insight. Ask one question at a time.
There are literally hundreds of open-ended questions you can ask a client to start an in-depth discussion about their business. The key is to ask questions that help identify opportunities for work. To figure out which questions you should be asking, take a piece of paper and divide it down the middle. On the left hand side, list all the features of your product, service or capabilities. On the right, start a list of open-ended questions which can help you explore how relevant each feature is to the prospect. For example, if your feature is ‘offices in 5 Asian countries’, an open-ended question you could ask is: “Where is your business located today and where will it be in the future?” Regardless how complex your product or service, try to narrow the list to 8 questions. Commit these to memory. You may not ask all of them in one meeting, but in most situations, these should be enough to start any sales discussion and explore whether a fit exists between what you do and what the client requires.
Don’t worry, just ask
“But if I ask the client who else they are talking to, it may put the idea in their mind that they should be talking to other providers. If I don’t bring it up, they may not think about it.” This is a insult to your client’s intelligence. Businesses buy products and services on a daily basis. They survive on getting the best price and service. In most cases they’ve decided well before meeting with you whether they’re just going to talk too just you, or bring other vendors into the mix. There is no danger in asking the ‘competition’ question. The only danger is ignorance. Find out who your competitors are – with this information you can differentiate yourself from the pack.