A fundamental question in selling is not why people sell, but why people buy.

People buy for their own reasons—not for the seller's. In fact, their motivation to buy may have very little to do with the reasons sellers think they should buy. When it comes down to it, people buy something to meet their needs or resolve the problems they are facing. According to Neil Rackham, author of SPIN Selling, people decide to buy when "the pain of the problem and desire for a solution have been built to the point where they are greater than the cost of the solution."

A good sales professional can help customers come to that realization. But it doesn't happen as easily as you might think. Despite the fact that most people learn the basics of conducting needs analysis, customizing solutions, and linking benefits to pain in their Sales 101 class, when they are out in the real world they forget to bring these classroom lessons to life, and somehow their competence, composure, and confidence evaporates. Faced with self-induced, pressure-filled selling situations, they confuse telling with selling.

Equal and Opposite Reaction

As dairy farmers are apt to say, "Cows don't give milk. You have to take it from them." The same is true with selling. Nobody just gives you a sale. You have to take it. But how you "take it" is very counterintuitive. A natural tendency of most sellers is to rush in. And as the Newtonian principle outlines, the equal and opposite reaction on part of the buyers is to shut them out.

Like milking a cow, selling can be a delicate operation. While a customer probably won't threaten you with a hoof, you're still faced with the fact that the harder you push, the more pushback you get. Why? As President Truman once said: "The best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it." Nobody likes to be told what to do—not even children.

Imagine going to a doctor who gives you the same prescription he gave the previous patient because it worked. By not listening, by not being inquisitive, by not clarifying assumptions, sellers come across as not caring—or caring more about themselves—and perpetuate the stereotypes of an arrogant, pushy salesman we all love to hate.

Breathing Your Own Exhaust

So, if you can't tell prospective buyers how good your products and services are for them, how the heck are you supposed to sell? Start by understanding how not to de-sell.

Most salespeople hate dead air. They become anxious. So they make every effort to fill the void by talking incessantly about what they know the most—their own products and services. They get excited about the value they offer and start spewing the features, advantages, and benefits.

Unfortunately, the more they talk, the more they are de-selling. And the more their customers' eyes glaze over and heels dig in. Customers don't want to be talked at and pushed. They want to be understood. The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes had it right when he said, "We have two ears and one tongue so that we would listen more and talk less." As fundamental as this advice is, not talking can be very difficult for an enthusiastic sales professional.

The greatest conundrum in selling is this: You can't sell without a relationship. And you can't have a relationship unless you have sold and demonstrated value. You may be thinking that selling-by-listening only works in one-on-one selling, and not in more complex, B2B selling. You would be wrong. No matter how complex the sale, you're still dealing with real people who are making decisions—not faceless corporations. They have the same emotions as anyone else: ambition to do better, fear of failure, confusion with uncertainty, need to be recognized, etc.

Listen and Learn

If telling isn't selling, then what is? What actions can one take to break the vicious cycle and not to generate an undesirable, equal and opposite reaction? Counterintuitive as it sounds, the more successful salespeople are those that ask the most questions. Not just any questions, but smart questions posed in a systematic way.

Neil Rackham, in his SPIN Selling Fieldbook, eloquently lays out a systematic approach to asking four types of questions, as follows:

  1. Situation: Finding out basic facts about the existing situation and establishing an overall context. This is ideally done through prior research so as not to bore the buyer to tears because they get very little value out of it.

  2. Problem: Asking about the problems, difficulties, and challenges the buyer is experiencing with the present situation. People buy only when they have needs, and needs almost always start with dissatisfaction with the status quo. Follow-up questions identify, clarify, and expand the buyer's implicit needs.

  3. Implication: Understanding the consequences and impacts of the situation, thereby transforming implicit needs expressed as problems into explicit needs. They build the significance and seriousness of the problem so that it is large enough to justify action.

  4. Need-payoff: Checking and assessing the value and usefulness of a solution in a positive and constructive way. They develop the buyer's desire for a solution and move the discussion toward action and commitment.

If you thought that asking questions in this manner is simple, think again. It is enormously difficult to have the confidence and patience to step through these without getting ahead of yourself. It requires tremendous planning, preparation, and practice. And most importantly, patience.

Patience, My Dear

What makes sellers anxious is the pressure they put on themselves to persuade the buyer. When a sale is seen as a conquest, persuasion naturally becomes the modus operandi, and telling appears to be the fastest, easiest, and safest way to the victory lap. However, if the sellers adopt a frame of mind to truly understand the buyer's point of view, they are likely to become less anxious.

If they seek first to understand, then to be understood, they will be more comfortable in asking questions. Armed with the answers to these questions, they will have gained better insights into the buyer's world and will have earned the right to help them with a solution.

French philosopher Voltaire was right when he said many centuries ago: "Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers."

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Abhay Padgaonkar is a management consultant, author, and speaker, and the founder and president of Innovative Solutions Consulting, LLC (www.innovativesolutions.org). Contact him via abhay@pobox.com.