Don’t answer prospect’s question unless you know why they’re asking

Has this ever happened to you? You’re in the middle of your second or third “good discussion” with a prospect. Everything’s going great. The prospect seems engaged and positively disposed to work with you. The prospect poses an innocent-sounding question: “How big is your company?”

Without hesitating for even a moment, you answer that question. You recite, more or less verbatim, the standard reply you were trained to recite when people ask you about the size of your company, the answer laid out for you in your organization’s orientation workshops, your promotion materials and your website: 500 employees, one headquarters location, three regional offices and six assembly facilities in three states.

The prospect nods. The conversation continues. Although there are plenty of smiles, pleasantries, and earnest promises to be in touch as you wrap up the meeting, the oddest thing takes place once you leave the building

The prospect no longer returns your calls. Your emails receive ambiguous replies and weeks pass by. You’re off the prospect’s radar screen. You find that no one else in the company seems willing to acknowledge your attempts to reach out, either. It’s like the prospect has ordered everyone in the enterprise to deny you and your company’s existence. What happened?

You answered the prospect’s question.

The founder of the Sandler Selling System, David Sandler, advised that you should only answer your prospects’ questions if you know the true intent of why the question is being asked AND if doing so can help you … or at least can’t hurt you. Because prospects tend to “smokescreen” their questions — meaning that they tend to ask questions whose true purposes aren’t likely to be clear to you at first — you must make sure, first and foremost, that you’re answering the real question.

Guess what? When that prospect asked, “How big is your company?” the real question was: “Will you be able to handle an 11-state distribution schedule?

As it happens, you can handle an 11-state distribution schedule due to sophisticated logistics capabilities you have. But the answer your company taught you to repeat during your onboarding sessions only mentions three states. And that was enough (non)information for this prospect to tune you out … without telling you why.

In most cases, and especially in the early going, you have to assume that every question you hear from a prospect is a smokescreen question. So, the question, “How soon can you get a shipment to us?” May mean, “Can you get a shipment to us by 10:30 Thursday morning?”

The question, “How strict are you with quantity discounts?” may mean, “Can I take advantage of the quantity discount and arrange for a 14-day split-shipment? If you make a habit of answering the first question you hear, you’ll never understand the real question!

Unfortunately, many salespeople (salespeople with many years of experience are often the worst offenders) often use a debilitating practice in selling: mindreading. A Sandler Rule to remember here is; NO mindreading.

You must discover why the prospect asked the question you just heard. You must identify the underlying intent. If you don’t know the intent — the importance and true relevance of the question to the topic of discussion — you can’t respond intelligently.

How do you identify the intent? By “reversing,” which is the strategy of responding to your prospect’s questions and statements with a question. It puts the verbal “ball” back in the prospect’s court.

Reversing prevents you from attempting to mind-read. It adds clarity and completeness to the prospect’s smokescreen questions and statements. It helps you uncover the underlying intent of those questions and statements.

Since we were young children, many of us were admonished for “asking so many questions,” or even worse, we were conditioned NOT to reverse when our mother, father or other authority figure said to us: “young woman (or young man), When I ask you a question, you answer it!”

This conditioning took years and years of repetition to corrupt our curious young minds to prevent us from using that curiosity on a sales call as an adult. Now, as an adult and professional salesperson, be sure to PRACTICE reversing with your sales team so mom and dad’s mal-adaptive script doesn’t win out the next time your team members find themselves in front of a prospect.

Bob Bolak is president of Sandler Training. He can be reached at 303-579-1939 or bbolak@sandler.com.

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