The Art of Aiming Your Probes

When you attempt to create trust in a conversation with others, three of the first four moves are pretty simple.  You need to keep your questions open, you need to listen, and you need to avoid asking problem related questions.  So, assuming you actively listen, you keep your questions open, and you avoid problems, you should be on my way to creating trust.  

But there’s a fourth move that needs to be talked about, and it’s typically the thing that most salespeople never really grasp.  I refer to it as, “Aiming Your Probes.”   Stephen Covey said it best with one of his Seven Habits when he said, “Begin with the end in mind.”  It’s extremely important to remember that bit of wisdom when you’re selling, so let’s unpack that a bit more.   

In conversations with others, we might find that our early questions meander a bit, and although they will get the customer talking, they don’t really provide all that much information.  They tend to sound something like this:

  • “Tell me about yourself.”
  • “How many people work here?” 
  • “Walk me through a typical day.”

Those aren’t bad questions, and I’m not saying don’t ask them, but we can do better – much better.  If you really were to begin with the end in mind, you need to aim your probes.  That means, you have to begin by understanding what you hopeyour client would actually want.  That hope lies in what particular strengths you can offer.  I often ask my clients this question: “If a customer walked in, and with no knowledge of who you are, or what you do, looked you in the eye and asked you for the best thing you had to offer, what would that be?”

When I was working with Xerox, the answer was easy.  Sure, our equipment cost more than any other competitors, and sure, it typically did less than any other competitors, but there were a few things that we did much better than anyone else.  One thing happened to be that every piece of equipment built by Xerox was easy to operate.  I dreamed of walking in to see a potential customer and hear them ask me for a powerful machine that was easy to operate, but that rarely happened.  I could ask the client if they had a problem with complicated equipment, but if I did ask that too early, the client might mistake that for a buying signal, and probably would not provide an honest answer.  Worse yet, it might annoy them.

So, let’s look at the situation more closely. I could get a hint of a customer’s problems, and an honest answer to my question if I toned that question down a bit. I could simply ask: “Who uses the equipment?”  Would that particular question set off a buying signal in your head, or annoy you?  For me, there was a clear right and wrong answer to the question.  I’d be thrilled to hear the answer, “Well, everyone.  That piece of equipment is part of everyone’s day!”  Without showing my hand, that answer gives me a clear strategy for later in the conversation; a whole lot more than, “How’s your day?”  

However, I could also hear the answer, “Well, just Larry over there.  I believe he used to be a tech-rep for Xerox.” Believe it or not, that answer wouldn’t bother me all that much either, because a response like that saves me ten minutes of trying to push in a feature that would be useless with this particular customer.  I’ve got more than one strength to my product, and would aim my next probe in another direction.  So, you see, in a sense, I win either way.  How about a few more examples:

  • If you sell cars that are electric, or the car you sell gets great gas mileage, I wouldn’t ask, “Do you have concerns about fuel prices?” I’d ask, “How far do you typically drive your car?”
  • If you sell IT security, I wouldn’t ask, “Are you concerned about the security of your network?”  I’d ask, “What type of security do you have in place, or how often is it updated?”
  • If you’re a manager with an employee who is not fitting in well with others, I wouldn’t ask, “Do you have issues with those you work with?”  I’d ask, “Tell me about the team you’re working with, and the projects you’re working on.”

One of the most fundamental lessons in selling involves how we create trust in conversations through our questions, not our statements, and that’s done by keeping out questions open, and avoiding questions that deal with problems.  By getting a little more creative and aiming those questions around your particular strength, you’ll get a hint of those problems.  In addition, you’ll have a whole lot more to work with later in the conversation!

Related: How Salespeople Make Customers Lie