By Joel E. Crockett February 16, 2004 -- What comes to mind when you hear the word "salesperson"? Or, to be anachronistic and politically incorrect, "salesman"? I asked that question recently when working with a small group of digital printing sales trainees, none of whom had any previous selling experience. The very first, almost spontaneous, word out of one mouth was, "sleaze." It was quickly followed by, "used cars," "slick," "schmooze," and "untrustworthy." Gradually, though, the thought-process shifted. "You know," one participant opined, "I've worked with some salespeople who were really helpful." As heads nodded in unison, this small group of digital print sales wannabes began to explore the positive side of selling. They recognized the value that a good, attentive, professional sales representative can offer. They started characterizing the salesperson as a friend, a coach, a consultant — even, from time to time, a counselor. Then one expressed, with enthusiasm, "Gosh, a good sales rep is almost like a doctor"! Almost like a doctor. Now there's an interesting analogy. After all, a doctor is a professional, as are the best salespeople. Doctors require focused training. So do we in sales. To truly bring value, doctors need to know their patients. Really know them. And to truly bring value, sale reps need to know their customers. Really know them! Earning Your Credentials You don't become a doctor without going to school. Pre-med students learn about injuries and diseases -- ordinary and exotic. They're taught to recognize symptoms, risks and cures. They learn about tools: stethoscopes, MRI scanners, scalpels and EKG machines. Digital printing sales people go through an educational process, too. It's rarely as formal as a doctor's, but no less critical to success. Sales reps learn through training seminars, classes, personal coaching and, most importantly, hands-on experience. And sales people learn about tools, too. There are RIPs, document creation tools variable data software. Heidelberg NexPresses and Digimasters, HP-Indigos, IBM Infoprints, Kodak VersaMarks, Océ VarioStreams and VarioPrints, and Xerox DocuColors and DocuTechs. Then there's DI offset presses, CTP and all manner of finishing and bindery equipment. And workflow runs it all. Very different from what a doctor knows, but there's one toolkit good doctors and good salespeople share in common. And is a collection of questions. Meeting the Patient Questions perform several functions in a sales call. The first, early in the process, is to break the ice, to learn more about a buyer and her company. These fact-finding questions help us understand the existing situation. They're polite questions, inoffensive. They're important. But, because they don't offer any tangible value to a customer, they're not strong in moving the selling process forward. A doctor might ask her new patient, "What can you tell me about your family's medical history?" "When's the last time you had a check-up?" These introductory questions are important. They don't bring a lot of value to the patient, but they help the doctor know where to focus, what to concentrate on. The effective salesperson uses the same sorts of questions as he gets to know his prospects. "How long have you been in business?" "How do you use printing in your advertising mix?" "Who's your largest customer?" Where Does it Hurt? The next kind of questions are tougher to ask than fact finders. Probing questions are direct, even blunt. A doctor probes to learn more about the needs of a patient. But people like talking about their problems. Because these questions encourage buyers to think about issues that relate to them and their jobs, they're more effective in moving toward a successful buyer/seller relationship. "What happens when I put pressure here?" you might be asked. "How do you feel when you first get up in the morning?" How can your physician help you if she doesn't know what your problems are, if she doesn't know where or when it hurts? It's not all that different in sales. How can we offer solutions if we don't know what they need--where the pain points are in their digital printing workflows? The problem is, customers are often like a doctor's patients. They don't know what they need. They ignore the early warning signs. Only when they're feeling real pain do they seek solutions. So we use probing questions to help buyers think more clearly about needs they might have. "How effective is your sales literature?" "What disadvantages are there in working with an out-of-town supplier?" "Buying printing must really be tough in today's changing market. What do you like least about your job?" The Diagnosis "If you can't find a way to get more than 6 hours of sleep a night, how will that affect the quality of your work?" the doctor may ask a patient who trivializes her insomnia. "If you allow your knee to get progressively weaker, what will it do to your golf game?" In other words, how dire might the consequences be if a problem is allowed to persist? How important is it to the patient to commit to a cure? In selling, such consequence questions address the needs we uncovered with our probing questions and expand them to determine just how real and serious, they are. They're designed to get a buyer thinking about the implications or impact of their problem. "What does it really cost you if your job doesn't arrive by the time the tradeshow opens?" "You mentioned that it's not unusual for quality to vary on a given printing job. But what happens when your customer gets one of your poorly printed brochures?" "What kind of difference would it make if you could be assured all the documents you printed were of the same quality?" Consequence questions are the strongest and most effective you can ask during the selling process, especially when you're selling to decision-makers in a competitive environment. The most highly successful digital printing salespeople withhold their solutions. They're skilled at building the consequences of the pain points to a level where the buyer gets so anxious, he's eager to find a cure. The Cure Finally, our doctor seeks buy-in. "How will your quality of life change if we can help you lose 40 pounds?" "What else would you gain if you quit smoking?" By encouraging a patient to contribute to the value or usefulness of a solution, chances are better that the patient will commit to, and stick with, the cure. Our sales goal, using problem-solving questions, is to focus our customer's attention on the solution. To encourage a customer to tell you about the additional benefits your "remedy" could offer. "How would it impact your inventory costs if we could provide just-in-time deliveries twice a week?" "What else would a reduced inventory give you?" "Do you think it would make a difference if you were able to send out relevant, personalized marketing materials to your customers?" Problem-solving questions are especially effective when decisions are not made on the spot. They make your buyer an advocate for your solution. She becomes your representative when making proposals to an internal committee, or a project manager. Top sales representatives ask more than ten times as many problem-solving questions as do average performers. The Annual Physical We visit our doctor when something hurts. When health issues slow us down. And periodically, many of us go in for a check-up. The annual physical. As sales people we, too, respond to the day-to-day needs of our customers. But how many of us take the time to do an annual review with our important accounts? Sales reps lose customers when they begin taking them for granted. We put ourselves at risk when we buy into the belief that what was true last year is still true now. When we stop asking questions. Truly effective salespeople don't allow that to happen. They schedule regular check-ups with their "lifestyle changing" customers. They meet with decision makers and ask questions like, "How is your company doing?" "Who are your toughest competitors?" "Why do your customers choose you instead of your competition?" Or, "What are the toughest issues facing your company?" They use the answers to these questions to add more services, to offer more value. Bedside Manner Questions persuade more powerfully than any other form of verbal behavior. If, however, you've not yet developed the habit of asking questions, you might find the going tough. Sometimes we're afraid to try new things… like asking questions on a first call. So we talk about our new digital press. We rely on brochures and equipment lists, or maybe samples to carry us through the first meeting. We learn nothing, though, that will give us clues about how to be of value to our new prospective customer. And we give our prospect no good reason to want to see us again. When's the last time you went in for a first appointment with a new doctor, and found that she spent most of her time telling you about her brand-new X-ray machine? What makes us think a buyer's going to be interested in us because we have a new machine that does something better? We need to find out what that something is first--and decide whether it's important to us. Good doctors and good salespeople don't sell tools. They don't sell capabilities. They build relationships. They identify problems and needs. They provide solutions. They sell cures What comes to mind when you hear the word, "salesperson"? Is that the person you want to buy from? Probably not if the word, "salesman," evokes the same reaction from you as it did from those sales trainees I met with. Buyers want to work with professionals. Representatives who have their best interests at heart. Advocates who have taken the time to know them and their issues. Partners. They want to buy from someone they can trust. Like the family doctor.