These are tough economic times, making the job of an executive sales leader even harder than usual. Needless to say, the last thing you need right now is for your reps to hobble themselves by asking all the wrong questions of their prospects. If your team is fond of any of the following queries, you may find yourself in a world of trouble:
1. How's Business? A lazy question, especially given the economy. Do you read the papers? For most companies, business is either down or expected to be soon. What you really want to know is, "In what areas has the economy impacted your business the most?" That question shows you already understand their situation and want to find out where it hurts most, so you can help with your company's product or solution.
2. What are your goals for this year? Whatever their goals were, they probably aren't their goals any more. Companies are adjusting projections and forecasts based on the weakened economy. And they have a marvelous device that they use to communicate that news: I'’s called a Web site. Do your research. What are they saying about the upcoming year? You should preface any question about their goals with, "My research and the statements made by your management team indicate that 2009 will…" Now they know you've done your homework and came ready to help them set their goals—not just react to them.
3. Who is your competition? You must have this knowledge before you talk with a prospective customer. If you don't, you can bet your competition will. Again, do your research. See how other companies are communicating the effect the economy has on their company so you can begin a competition conversation with, "I know that XYZ Corporation has said that the economic crisis will result in lower foreign sales for them. Are you projecting the same?"
4. How is your company going to stand out? If you don't know this, why are you pitching their business? If they make or sell something you can try yourself, do it. If it's something they sell to other companies, find out why those companies bought it. You should have some compelling reason for why you want their business that is based on what they actually sell. Otherwise, walk away and find a different prospect.
5. How has your company been successful in the past? Unless their past includes the Great Depression, this is an irrelevant question. Few companies have faced the economic challenges that today's firms are facing. Your prospective customer is a busy executive who doesn't have time to live in the past, and doesn't want you to, either. He is focused on getting his company through this period and keeping it on track. So should you.
6. Who is your customer? In any economic climate, you should know the answer to this already. If you don't, how do you expect to tailor your product or service to meet your prospective customer's needs? In difficult times, the company's focus is likely to change, and so will its target customer. Try asking instead, "Who is your ideal customer?" This establishes a gap between who they currently have as a steady customer versus who they need to have so their business can move forward.
7. Is there anyone else I should see? Yes, but you’re not going to. You have to get the person you’re speaking with on board as your partner first. Then you can ask, "In addition to you, who else makes up the decision team?"
8. Should I leave this information with you? Never ask this question! Declare the value of the information you have prepared and demonstrate how it addresses a solution to their problems. Present it as a gift for your potential client, something you know they need and don’t have already. "These three sheets outline our conversation and pinpoint the true value of our partnership as we maneuver through these tough times together."
9. What is your budget? A horrible question you should never ask—especially now, because whatever their budget was, it probably ain't there anymore. By the time you talk money, you should have them fully engaged in what you do, what you can do for them and the extent to which they will need you to do it. You need to proactively put a value on that for them, by stating, "In order to accomplish the goals you've outlined, the investment in our partnership is X."
10. Who should I follow up with? You're kidding, right? Why give up control? Always recommend the next step in the process, even if the client rejects it. Let him! Present who you believe the next meeting ought to be with and why this is important, and reinforce the primary goal your client articulated at your meeting in the process.
Steve Giglio is a renowned executive development consultant. Among the clients he's worked with are Vanity Fair, American Express, and Lexis/Nexis.