Starters for 10: The Art of Asking Questions

PLL_7301T21 Group CEO Paul Laville goes Back to Basics with Electrical Retailers.

Earlier this year I decided to do some shopping. ‘Mystery Shopping’ that is, because I know that every keen retail salesperson loves it when someone pretending to be a genuine customer walks in off the street to tease a sale right up to the close only to walk away with the smiling promise of “I’ll think about it”.

However, believe it or not there was a purpose to my visits: I’d been asked by a couple of retailers to start some sales training with their shop floor staff.

For us at T21 it’s vital that we obtain first-hand knowledge of the abilities and attitudes of the people we’ll be training. The more detailed knowledge we have, the fewer assumptions we make, the more targeted and successful our training will be. In short, it’s simply about understanding our customer’s needs and then providing a solution which addresses them perfectly. If we get it right the theory is they’ll ask us to do more.

If you’re now thinking “that sounds a bit like selling” then you’re right. It is. With a slight tilt of the horizon it’s the same as selling to your customers on the shop floor.

The difference is that you can’t mystery shop your customers. Well you could, perhaps, but you’d probably be frowned at whilst lurking at their dinner table recording notes.

But there are tactics you can use to obtain the same level of detailed knowledge and form the highest resolution image of your customer’s wants and needs.

You ask them questions.

Everybody knows this, and I know that everybody knows this. It’s basic stuff.

So why bring it up?

Well, because in all my mystery shop visits few people asked me enough questions to understand what I really, truly needed. Here’s an example:

Seller: “What are you looking for, sir?”

Me: “A TV.”

Seller: “Any particular size?”

Me: “I dunno. Probably … fifty-inch?”

Seller: “Ok. So… here’s a fifty-inch TV. Let me show you how it works. Do you watch YouTube?” And so on into an enthusiastic demonstration of a bunch of features I’d never use on a TV too small for my room.

Some asked me what brand I preferred, or what TV I had currently and how much I was willing to spend? There’s nothing wrong with any of that. It’s all good stuff. You might sell to one in every five or six customers you talk to just by asking a few questions like these and performing a decent demonstration.

But what if you want to increase that sell rate – maybe to three or four in every five customers you speak to? What if you need to increase the value of each transaction at the same time?

The easiest place to start is by asking questions and getting to know your customer. You really shouldn’t start recommending or demonstrating products, or even try to close the sale, until you understand your customer’s preferences and situation on a deeper level.

I’m sure all retail staff know about the importance of open questions – those beginning with ‘what’, ‘where’ ‘why and ‘who’ –  and how well they elicit information, but it’s surprising how little they’re really used. Few of my mystery shop targets discovered (without me volunteering the information) that I also needed a soundbar to go with my new TV, and there lies the opportunity to cross-sell and increase the value of your transaction. What about extended warranty?  Only one hardy soul mentioned it.

Think about this: Within five minutes your customer has to tell you all about their home situation, their family, and how much money they have, but when they first walk in they’re strangers.

So, what’s the best way to get to know a complete stranger? In a social situation, you’d ask a few choice questions. Same here. Great questions are at the heart of great conversations, and when you have a great conversation going with your customer they’ll start releasing information that will enable you to truly match their needs.

Just remember to keep the conversation relevant and in control, which is something else that good questioning skills can help you with. If your customer is asking all the questions, then they’re the ones in control. So turn it around: answer their questions with a question of your own.

It might all sound a bit ‘back to basics’, but there’s nothing wrong with that: no matter how long you’ve been in sales, and whether that’s in retail, property, luxury goods or construction, whether your travels take you to offices on the far side of the world or a warehouse in Warrington, you should never lose touch with the basics.

As an anecdotal aside to this, when I was a sales rep for a very well known brand of cameras I once asked my customer (who was a buyer for one of the UK’s largest general retailers) a very simple question: “What do you need for us to be your number one camera brand?” The buyer initially laughed me out of the ball park, but I told him to think about it and come back to me with a sensible answer. When he did come back, we sat together and over the course of several meetings negotiated a strategy of mutual benefit that tripled our business in 12 months and continued to grow.

A version of this article first appeared in the October 2017 edition of ERT

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