A few years ago, my wife and I caught the Off-Broadway production of The Office. This wasn’t planned but we thoroughly enjoyed it. The first thing that struck us was how many in attendance were wearing Dunder Mifflin t-shirts. The show itself was brilliant and, if you ever have the chance, I recommend you see it.
More recently, while pedaling on a stationary bicycle at the gym, I came across a TV channel that is dedicated to reruns of the show that ran for nine seasons. One in particular grabbed my attention.
Likely, you have heard of, and even used drag and drop. In this episode, acting as assistant to the manager, Dwight drugs and drags Stanley to a major sales call. Barely coherent as he recovers from the horse tranquilizer Dwight administered, Stanley admires the photos of grandchildren the prospect has displayed on her desk.
The scene cuts to the ride back to the office where Dwight and Stanley are celebrating a big sale. Of course, they credit the victory to fawning over the grandkid’s photos. This would be like admiring Michael Scott’s management practices. Yet, there are still so many wrong-headed practices in sales I am afraid this could take hold. Let me counter the fiction from The Office episode with some real-life stories.
I once coached a young salesperson who admired a large photo of a sailboat the prospect had hanging behind his desk. The prospect quickly replied that he did not sail, the picture of the boat was left there by his predecessor, and he kept it so he could inform salespeople that he was busy and wanted to get down to business.
Another coaching story comes from the opposite US coast and involves another young salesperson. I joined her on a call with a CFO. After a few minutes, the CFO interrupted and noted that the salesperson should have known the answer to every question she asked to that point. But the CFO said she had scheduled thirty minutes for the meeting which she would honor. She simply hoped the questions would get better. They didn’t.
Hard but unforgettable lessons that we now share with those we coach and teach. One, you should plan on no more than ten percent of your meeting to warm up with small talk on hobbies, weather or sports teams. How bout them Mets? Then get down to business with well-thought-out questions that demonstrate you have done your homework.
Two, the objective in consultative selling is for the prospect to trust you as a consultant. In plain language, the salesperson who failed to ask quality questions blew it. She never secured a second meeting with that CFO.
Neil Rackham and his team conducted landmark research showing that the key to succeeding in sales is asking questions. While there are several good questioning models out there, we prefer the one developed by long-time partner, Harry Koolen. We call it 3D Knowledge that guides the questions you plan to ask. The first dimension is top to bottom knowledge of the client’s organizational structure. Dimension two is horizontal and deals with the various lines of business or products. Finally, the third dimension, front to back, is what sets apart the high performing salespeople from the typical ones: learning about the competitive landscape and strategy for each of the product lines.
In summary, your prospects are busy and want you to quickly demonstrate that you have done your homework and are prepared to take the first step in becoming a trusted consultant by asking strategic questions. Remember that just because there is a picture of a sailboat doesn’t mean the guy wants to talk about sailing.