Effective Probing: Seven Questions to Ask the Prospect

Because, in the competitive sale, the prospective account has initiated an inquiry, your Influencer has a built-in reason to cooperate with your need for information. While they rarely volunteer details, they are almost always cooperative when asked for them. In fact, the opening situation – that they, by contacting you, have demonstrated interest in a discussion – provides you a gilded invitation to collect information for your initial meeting. This is a huge opportunity if it is handled properly. The key here, given that we have limited time on the phone, is to ask the right questions – in the right order – to learn as much as possible about the current state of the buyer.

Most formal RFPs provide a contact person for questions. Whether responding to an RFP or handling an incoming phone call, the request should be as follows: “to make the best use of your time, do you have a moment to answer a few questions for me?” Because of the pre-established interest of the account, the response you will get is, “sure, what would you like to know?” Once you get this response, follow this seven-question sequence to lay the foundation for your strategy.

  1. How did you hear about us? Predators always keep close tabs on where their leads are coming from. Enough said.
  2. What prompted you to contact us? This will provide you with the Dominant Buying Motive – the primary reason for the action taken in contacting you. Let them talk – and take notes.
  3. What else can you tell me about what you are looking for? This is often the most important question of the initial interview; this additional “dig” for more information can provide crucial details. In most cases, it will provide you with secondary data about the desired outcomes of the account – details that your competitors will usually miss.
  4. What other options are you considering? This is a subtle and non-threatening way of asking “who is my competition?” Granted, they may refuse to share this with you – but that rarely happens. Worst case, they will not mind your asking. If you learn that competitors are being considered, immediately add the two “bonus”  questions below:
    4a. Where are you in your meetings with them? This establishes pecking order. You will usually learn where you fall in the sequence of evaluating options, as well as how far along the account is in the decision process. If they have already met with your competition, add the question below:
    4b. What have you liked, and not liked, about what you’ve seen so far? Again, they don’t’ have to tell you this information – but what is the harm in asking? You might hit the jackpot. I once asked a prospect this question about one of my competitors and his response was, “I disliked his presentation, and his pricing was out of line.” Would you find this information useful? I did – and it helped me to easily land the account.
  5. What is your decision process, and who else besides yourself will be involved? As we will discuss later, there is almost never a single person who buys without the input of others. It is critical that you identify this “inner circle” as quickly as possible. Don’t be afraid to press for detail – “and what role does _____ have?”  – and take notes!
  6. What is your role in this process? This will usually clarify the level of influence that your initial contact has – or does not have – in the buying process. The most common response is “my job is to gather information for them.”
  7. What is your time-frame for making a decision? This is an excellent question to establish the interest level of the buyer, and, incidentally, the quality of the lead. “We have to make a decision by ____” indicates a high-quality opportunity. “We are in no hurry” obviously indicates otherwise. “I’m not sure” translates to “I’m not high enough in our organization to know.”

As the result of this brief fact-finding mission, you now know:

  • What marketing channel brought the prospect to you
  • What the buyer’s Dominant Buying Motive is
  • Secondary details regarding what they are looking for
  • Who your competition is
  • Where the prospect is in terms of their buying timeline, as well as your location as you enter the opportunity
  • Their initial assessment of your competitors
  • Their sense of urgency regarding the decision process

It is also worth noting here that, as a result of asking these seven questions, you come across as being well-organized, knowledgeable, and professional. Frankly, most people will be impressed with the way in which you conduct this interview. First impressions are important – and following this sequence allows you to put your best foot forward. Also, be aware that it is highly unlikely that your competition will ask for this information. Because you did, you will begin the selling process armed with information that they simply do not initially have. And by the time they get it – if they do at all – it is often too late.

Excerpted from my new book, Competitive Selling, published by McGraw-Hill and available at www.amazon.com.

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