What’s the most crucial skill in cooking or baking? I would suggest that it’s recipe creation. Get it wrong and it doesn’t matter how skilled one is at mixing ingredients, cooking time, or plate presentation; the meal will still suck.
What’s the most crucial skill in construction? I would suggest it’s the ability to take an exact measurement. Get that wrong and it doesn’t matter how skilled one is at using a table saw, nail gun or custom finishes. Those ¼” gaps will be as obvious as white on rice.
Selling is very much the same as cooking and building. Get the one crucial skill wrong and the outcome will suck. But just what is that one crucial thing? Many will argue with me here, but I’m used to it.
It takes close to forever for salespeople to learn to sell consultatively. It’s different from a transactional sale in that the emphasis shifts from telling to asking and from us to them. But more than that, it’s really about having a sales conversation. We have conversations with people all day long so why is the sales conversation so difficult? Is asking questions really that hard?
The short answer is, “No.” But there’s a reason it seems that way.”
There are two skills that are more important than asking questions. The first is listening and most salespeople don’t grasp how difficult listening is. If you are thinking one or two moves ahead, you couldn’t possibly be listening closely to every word your prospect says. If you are strategizing how to get this deal closed, you are absolutely not listening to what your prospect is saying. You must be 100% in the moment and focused on every word just to reach the starting line!
Then, you must know what to listen for. Your prospect will say an awful lot but only a few words will get you where you want to go. If you can’t pick out those few words then you can’t ask the next question! For example, let’s make up a product and pretend we are selling software that manages your weekly errands.
As the salesperson, you ask about which errands your prospect runs each week and you hear about the grocery store, dry cleaner, bank, gas station, video game store, nursery, office supplies store, bakery, and nursing home.
You say, “Wow, does that seem like a lot of errands to you?
Your prospect says, “Well, yeah – it’s a miracle I get to it all each week.”
You are a genius and know which word is the important one and ask, “Why is it a miracle?”
Your prospect says, “I work 60 hours a week, I have a 1-hour commute, my 3 kids have different sports, lessons and events to be chauffeured to all weekend. There’s no time!
You still seem to know what you’re doing and you ask, “How do all of those hours and commitments affect your home life?”
Note – we haven’t said a word about software.
Note – if this were real most of you would be very uncomfortable having gone this far. But we’re just getting started!
Your prospect says, “What home life? I never see my husband, I don’t have time to cook, we never eat dinner as a family; I feel like a failure!”
Now this is getting good, right? Very softly now, “Tell me about that.”
She says, “This just isn’t what I envisioned.”
You ask, “What did you envision?”
She says, “I would come home, open some wine, cook dinner, turn on the music, sip the wine while I’m cooking, everyone sits together at the table, we eat, have dessert, watch some TV as a family, talk about our days, and go to sleep. And we would get a good night’s sleep too.
You ask, “And instead of the wine, music and cooking?”
She says, “Fast food. I hate it. I hate this!”
We could keep this dialog going for pages but I have an 800-word limit so I need to wrap it up. Most salespeople, mistakenly believing that they were selling consultatively, would have jumped in long ago and offered up their solution.
Instead, if you have identified all of the issues, you need to summarize what you heard, emphasizing the real problem; the compelling reason to buy:
You would now say, “It seems to me that the errands just make the work/life balance even worse and you desperately want your life back!”
After a positive response to that you have taken the first step to building a case – establishing value – without saying a thing about yourself or what you do. You are not selling software; you are helping to give back her life! That is how one approaches consultative selling. You are far from done, but at least you have begun.
So what is the single biggest skill gap? It is knowing and recognizing what to listen for. Review the dialog above and watch how easy the questions are when you identify the right (italicized) words, from the prospect’s response, to use in the next question.
Identify the wrong word and the conversation sucks.