When I ask sales managers what they wish their reps would improve in their sales calls with prospective customers, the number one response is “ask more questions!” Overwhelmingly, sales managers are frustrated by reps who spend more time talking about the features and benefits of products and services, rather than seeking to understand the prospect’s business or needs. They know that when their reps take the time to ask questions, listen and understand customers’ needs, sales conversations flow better and are more effective. So, why don’t these managers take their own advice when coaching their reps?
Think of how most sales managers approach post-call debriefs with their reps. They usually begin by asking reps how they think the call went. But after listening to reps’ short replies, sales managers usually shift to talking at their reps. They will tell reps what they did well. They will tell reps what they did poorly. They will tell reps specific ways they can improve. They will tell reps what worked for them when they were reps. In a typical post-call de-brief, sales managers usually spend about 80% of the time talking. And while sales managers have good intentions to help their reps improve with this coaching, they are going about it the wrong way. Rather than focusing on talking and telling, sales managers can do their best coaching when they are focused on asking questions and listening.
To illustrate why asking questions during coaching is so critical, let’s first consider the reasons why sales managers encourage reps to ask questions of customers. First of all, it is hard for reps to recommend the right products or services to customers when they don’t understand their needs and goals. Along this same line, it is also difficult for sales managers to coach reps in sales calls when they don’t understand what the rep was trying to accomplish. Therefore, when coaching a rep, the first question should be: “What were you trying to accomplish in this situation?”
After they’ve identified the customers’ goals, sales managers teach their reps to understand what customers are currently doing to try to accomplish their goals. Likewise, sales managers need to understand what their sales reps are doing to accomplish their goals in a sales call, specifically what strategies are working for them and which ones aren’t. Accordingly, when coaching a rep, the second question should be: “What do you think went well and what could have gone better?”
Once they understand the customers’ needs and challenges, sales managers want their reps’ final questions to help customers identify the right solution. Similarly, it is important that sales managers’ coaching questions help reps identify strategies to help them grow. When they discover the solutions on their own, reps are much more receptive to taking a different tact in the future. This is why, when coaching a rep, a final question should be: “What would you do differently the next time?”
In using questions, it is always important to listen and then follow-up to clarify your understanding, explore the reasoning in your reps’ thought process, or to help lead them to the right conclusion. Don’t be afraid to play devil’s advocate with some of your questions if it helps challenge their thinking in a way that helps them grow. Also, make sure your questions are open-ended, not just yes or no questions where you are simply looking for their agreement. The idea with questions is to get them thinking and coming to their own conclusions, not just agreeing with you.
Overall, we can learn from our own advice regarding the positive impact that questions can have. The same way that customers are more open to buying when our questions have help them uncover their own needs, our reps are also more open to coaching when our questions help them identify how they can improve their skills. When we tell people what to do and how to do it, they can become defensive. Questions, on the other hand, invite them to think, consider and explore new directions. Ultimately, when we coach with questions, our reps remain more open and receptive to new ideas. And an open mind is essential to really learning and growing.
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