Growing up, I regularly read Seventeen. It contained a wealth of information on how to be popular. As someone with distinct nerdish tendencies, I considered this teen magazine to be an essential part of my social education.
Being the good student that I am, I not only read it religiously, but also studied certain areas in great depth. I was particularly enamored with articles on what it took to get guys to ask you out and then want to date you on a regular basis.
It didn't take me long to see a pattern emerging. The secret to successful dating was clearly asking questions. The only thing a girl had to do was get the guy talking about himself and he'd think she was the most wonderful person on earth. That sounded simple enough.
The only problem was in the execution. I was so nervous when I went out on dates that I couldn't even keep a short conversation going. After one or two questions, my mind went blank. What followed was a deathly silence that seemed to last forever. It must have been 2-3 seconds long.
I didn't know what to say. Nothing clever came to mind. The next thing I knew I was blathering about something stupid. That wasn't supposed to happen, but I was so self-conscious that I was functionally unable to come up with any insightful questions. Clearly I needed more help, but what's a poor girl to do?
Finally after a few botched dates, I figured it out. I prepared the questions ahead of time. I'd sit on my bed and jot down a few things that I knew about the guy. Then I'd develop a list of questions that leveraged my limited knowledge about his current situation and what he might be doing in the upcoming years. I'd stick this list in my purse and take it with me.
Go ahead and laugh. It worked. No, I didn't pull the list out as we were driving along in the car or sitting across from each other at the restaurant. I didn't need to do that. The simple act of writing the questions down on paper solidified them in my mind, making them easy to recall even under pressure.
I never realized how important this skill would be in my future career. When I attended my first sales training course at Xerox, I learned that the ability to ask powerful, insightful questions was the single biggest differentiator between top performers and average reps.
Lots of people think being a good listener is the most important thing sellers can do. It isn't.
If you haven't prepared the questions, there's no way you can be an effective listener. A person's brain can only do one thing at a time - listen or think of the next question they're going to ask.
It's one or the other. When you focus on that next question, you miss a whole lot of really good information. Plus you can't help but look and sound distracted.
Seventeen talked about the importance of being a good listener too. But what they didn't realize is that it's a secondary skill to asking provocative or thoughtful questions.
From the magazine, I learned how to nod my head appropriately to show keen interest. I discovered how to rephrase and reframe what my date said to get a better understanding of his perspective. I learned how to sit quietly after asking a question to wait for my date's insightful response.
The result of my questioning/listening efforts was a very intense focus on my prospective beau - his interests, passions, concerns, priorities and more. Those young men who dated me clearly felt important, valued and held in high esteem. Although they knew little about me (which is a whole different issue), it didn't seem to matter. They liked me and wanted to explore developing a more serious relationship.
From my perspective I felt an incredible sense of relief! Prior to learning these lessons, I suffered from a serious case of performance anxiety. I worried about what I'd say, how to sound interesting, how to be funny and more. Learning how to lead a discussion through the artful use of questioning totally took me off the hot seat - enabling me to enjoy being with the other person.
From a sales perspective, that's the same as not having to worry about your presentation anymore. Just focus on that prospective customer and everything else takes care of itself.
The Lessons Learned
Perhaps you didn't read Seventeen when you grew up. Maybe you were lucky. There's a lot in there that bothers me too. But fortunately, I learned these valuable life lessons that ultimately contributed to my success:
- Asking questions is the key to establishing good relationships with prospective customers (and dates).
- You can listen better when you prepare your questions ahead of time.
- When you're not self-conscious about what you'll say, you can really focus on the other person.
Hopefully sharing them with you will contribute to your sales success too.
P.S. If you need help with questions, check out my ebook on Winning More Sales: Take Your Business to the Next Level with Insightful, Powerful Questions.