How to Master the Art of Selling - Tom Hopkins
Sales people, advertisers and politicians use questions to pull our strings. They use questions every day face to face, in speeches, advertisements, and advertorial. Why do you think that might be? It’s to get us to think what they want us to think. (Find the other posts in this series here).
In this post and the next one we are going to look at how sales people use questions to guide the conversation and make us feel safe enough and eager enough to buy their wares. We’ll also consider how these techniques can help the Business Analyst define scope, facilitate workshops and influence stakeholders.
So – Don’t you want to find out what sales people are doing when they use questions to persuade us to buy shiny new toys?
You do! Of course you do!
Sales people have a very clear agenda – to find out what you want to buy and if needs be to help you want their particular product enough to buy it from them. Of course they cannot force you to buy something you don’t want, but they can nudge you along if you are undecided. The simplest and best structured introduction to sales questions that I have come across is How to Master the Art of Selling by Tom Hopkins. Hopkins is no stylist, he is the antithesis of an academic and he is certainly cheesy, as a lot of the Amazon reviews point out. But he really understands how questions work. It’s a book I recommend to anyone who wants to understand questions regardless of whether or not you work in sales.
Hopkins lists these reasons for a sales person to ask questions
- To gain control
- To isolate areas of interest / isolate objections
- To acknowledge a fact
- To receive minor agreements
- To arouse and control emotions
- To answer objections
Whoever asks the questions owns the conversation. We’ve seen this already in the second post in this series when we looked at how control passed between Mrs Thatcher and Mrs Gould in their exchange and at the control exercised by Jeremy Paxman and by the Girl in Paradise by the Dashboard Light. If you want to take control in an exchange then answer a question with a question. (See the clips in Questions: 2).
Exercise: Go to YouTube and watch some interviews by Michael Parkinson or David Letterman, and see how they use questions to change the subject and steer the conversation.
Isolate areas of interest / Isolate objections
This is about defining what matters and what doesn’t matter. In the BA’s world we call this scope. There is no point in designing solutions to problems the Business do not care about, any more than there is any point in selling features or benefits the customer isn’t interested in. As a sales person, you are wasting your breath and my time and yours if you go on and on and on about how fast the SuperTurbo car accelerates if what I want is fuel economy.
Exercise: Imagine you want to buy a car (or move house, if you prefer). Draw up a list of your criteria and be very clear on what is vital, what is nice to have, and what doesn’t matter one way or the other. Work out what questions the car dealer should ask you so he doesn’t waste your time or his selling you something you don’t want. What is the optimum number of questions? (Too many and it gets ridiculous, not enough and there’s ambiguity).
Exercise: Someone else takes the role of the car buyer so that you can take the role of the car dealer.
If you do those two exercises you’ll get a feeling of deja vu. Yes, this is like the game of 20 questions, with the advantage that you can ask open ended questions.
Acknowledge a fact – compare:
Me: Nasty weather today
Me: Nasty weather today
You: Isn’t it?
It’s a subtle difference, but the first one can be rather abrupt while the second one indicates a willingness to have a conversation. Saying “isn’t it?” instead of “yes” is a habit which makes minor interactions with people serving in shops and waiting in bus queues softer and friendlier, and which encourages minor agreements between two people. This will quickly become an unnoticeable habit, and one it does no harm to acquire.
Gain minor agreements.
You can see how easy it is to use questions to gain minor agreements, can’t you? Simply turning a statement into a question is really effective, isn’t it? It can get irritating, can’t it? But isn’t it powerful? And wouldn’t it be worth learning to do it ‘invisibly’, so you can use it when you are facilitating a workshop?
Exercise: Find a news story and mark up the positive statements. Ignore the speculation and supposition, you are looking for statements of fact. Then re-read it, and turn each one into a question seeking agreement. (Isn’t it, doesn’t it, wouldn’t it, etc). Practice putting the question element at the beginning, in the middle and at the end.
Arouse and control the emotions.
This is the interesting one. This is the one where the sales person’s true skills lie because it has to be done without annoying the prospect, and when it is done well the effect is irresistible. Surprisingly enough, it doesn’t matter if the prospect knows what is happening; in fact there is a saying in sales that a sales person is the easiest person to sell to.
It is immensely irritating when a sales person tries to reinforce an emotion you don’t feel, but a good sales person doesn’t try to do that. Instead, they will use those scoping questions to uncover what turns you on about what you want to buy and only then will they use questions to reinforce the emotion. For example, I told the estate agent that I wanted a house with a view, and when I first stood by the the window of the house I now live in, he said to me ”You said you wanted a good view, you couldn’t ask for a better view than that, now could you?” His question reinforced the emotion I was already feeling, because it is a good view.
There is no special format for these questions. They are all about context and you just don’t notice them when they are done well.
Exercise: Watch QVC or another shopping channel for as long as you can bear to, and see how two or more presenter use questions between each other, and how a single presenter will use rhetorical questions to make the product enticing and to deal with any concerns a buyer might have. Don’t buy anything!
This draws in every technique a sales person has at their disposal because in the end using questions to answer objections is just another instance of using questions to persuade.
Questions don’t have to be big to be effective. In fact, the more subtle the question, the more easily it slips under the radar. And because of the human need to answer a question, questions are far more powerful than statements if you want someone to agree with you, a thing it is useful for every BA to know.
As Tom Hopkins says:
If I tell you something is true, then that’s my opinion. If you tell me something is true, then it’s true.
This is the fifth of these entries and you can find the others here
. Next week we’ll look at the actual questions sales people use.
A reminder: This work by Ben Warsop is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.