The worst question in a sales conversation


Perhaps the most popular opener of many sales reps is the question: “What keeps you up at night?”  A recent article in the Harvard Business Review by the authors of a new book, The Challenger Sale:  Taking Control of the Customer Conversation says that this technique may prevent sales and reduce customer loyalty.  According to Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson and proven through our consulting experience, a better strategy would be to redesign the entire sales experience.

Conventional wisdom underscored by numerous sales training programs says that the above question is a good beginning to a sales conversation.  The objective is to identify a client’s burning needs so that the rep can promote his or her own solution aka help them sleep at night.  No doubt, this approach has worked with many clients.  However, it suffers from three important but habitually ignored flaws which limit its effectiveness: 

  1. Diagnosing needs by a sales rep is a very difficult undertaking, especially in real time.  The more complex the product or problem, the tougher the process;
  2. We have seen this seemingly innocuous question be perceived as disingenuous or cliché when delivered crudely and;
  3. The question is based on an unproven assumption that companies including their agents will always understand or will admit to a stranger their true needs.

A new strategy

A better sales path would be to tell customers what they need to know.  In essence, the sales person educates customers on problems and solutions that they may not be aware of.   This isn’t your standard solution-selling approach, focused on open-ended needs diagnosis. Instead, this sales strategy emphasizes delivering valuable information to customers instead of extracting information from them. In effect, the sales rep assumes the role of a problem-solving, trusted advisor at the beginning of the conversation. 

Customers benefit in many ways from this new approach.  They get fact-based insights and solutions from the outset; they feel that they are not being “sold to” and; they experience real empathy for their concerns.  These types of sales interactions will predictably improve closing rates, increase client satisfaction scores and enhance loyalty.  In our research, sales outcomes improve for a variety of reasons: 1)  a company or sales rep can more easily differentiate themselves, particularly in highly transactional or commodity markets;  2) delivering value up-front establishes an implicit obligation for the client to continue a conversation and;  3)  providing rich insights clearly demonstrates corporate capabilities and knowledge.

Research-based findings

Dealings such as these are core elements of a client-centered sales experience, which has been proven by research to be the major driver of customer loyalty. Dixon and Adamson conducted a loyalty study on 5,000 business customers. The biggest driver by a factor of 2x is something most companies don’t even consider: the Sales Experience, which was identified as a loyalty driver by 53% of all customers.  For perspective, Product & Service Delivery and Company & Brand Impact was each noted by 19% of the respondents.  Interestingly, the Price-to-Value Ratio was identified as a customer loyalty driver by only 9% of respondents.

According to the study, customers will reward suppliers who offer a compelling sales experience which includes “offering unique and valuable perspectives on the market” and “educate them on new issues and outcomes.” Simply put, loyalty and closing rates are more a function of how you sell than what you sell.

Turning theory into practice

Importantly, figuring out the right sales experience is not something to leave to your individual reps to figure out. The entire organization plays a part.  For example, sales management has a key role in designing a differentiated, advisor-based experience based on a customer’s stated and hidden needs and the seller’s unique capabilities. Specifically, we have used the principles of behavioral psychology to help tailor the experience – messages, practices and process – to the customer’s unconscious drivers of feelings and behaviors. Finally, marketing plays a critical role in identifying and messaging the teachable insights and equipping reps with the sales tools to deliver them to customers.

For more information on services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.

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1 comment so far

  1. […] the sales experience Face-to-face selling has never been so difficult, whether that is securing appointments or providing useful information at every interaction.  […]


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