Time to Ask Customers Tough Questions

Nobody likes asking—or answering—tough questions. But sometimes that's just what small business owners need to do with their clients, and year's end is a good time to do it, says Scott Messer, a principal and coach at Sales Evolution outside Philadelphia.Messer, who has been working with small businesses for more than a decade, says plowing through "scary" questions helps entrepreneurs develop lasting, personal relationships with their customers that ultimately improve sales.He spoke recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow. Do entrepreneurs sometimes avoid talking honestly with customers because they fear getting an earful of complaints? People don't like getting bad news. That's what makes it hard to ask questions that are really keys to identifying what's going to happen in a relationship. The truth is there, but asking the questions and discovering the reality is tough. You recommend that small business owners, or perhaps sales managers, touch base with all their clients, or at least their key clients, sometime before the end of the year. Why? With 2010 right around the corner, now is the time to talk to clients and set the stage for the new year. It's all about relationship management. But sometimes the most difficult relationship is the one that's rarely talked about: the relationship between the business owner and himself. A lot of business people are great at their craft, or they're technical wizards, but when it comes to communicating with customers, they're weak and untrained. The process we go through with our clients is "guess-free" selling. You don't need to guess about whether your customers will be buying from you next year. The answers are there: Your prospects and your clients know the answers. You just have to ask. What are the scary questions you believe need asking, at least once a year? One of them is, "If you were giving us a report card, what grade would we get?" Now, you've got to put a caveat on that and make it clear you're talking about things other than price, which you probably can't change. But ask clients to rate you and your company based on communication, performance, and all the things you need to know about. Another one is to ask your best clients, "If we lose your business in 2010, why would that happen, other than price?" It takes courage even to go there with your best customers. Nobody wants to think about losing his best customers. But your best customer is your competitors' best prospect, and you need to know what they're thinking about you and your company. What else would you ask during this yearend conversation with clients? "With 2010 around the corner, what do you think you'll do more of, less of, or just plain differently next year?" It's a planning question. You want to know what's changing for your clients, what they've been tasked with, what objectives they need to meet, and what personal goals they're aiming for. The core of the question is, "How can I help you? How do I make you look good, make your company more productive, and help you achieve your corporate goals?" When your clients believe you have their best interests at heart, they'll buy whatever you're selling. And they'll pay more for it, because you're the safest person to buy from. Why would you ask about personal goals, and who would you direct that question to? Ask whomever you deal with at the client company: a business owner, a buyer—it doesn't matter. The reasons people buy are to solve a personal problem or to meet a personal objective or goal, even if it's at a business. People get tasked to do specific things. If they don't fix this thing, they're going to get fired, or they're going to lose their business. If they improve operating efficiency or bring on a successful new module, they'll get a bonus or their business will grow. You said no one likes to get bad news, but I suspect no one likes to give it, either. How do you get people to be really honest in their responses? You need to give them permission explicitly up front. "I realize I may or may not like your answer, but I need to know how you feel about this." Business communication is about human interaction. Being "professional" has killed more professional service opportunities than anything else, because people are trying to be so professional they won't ask the core questions. The good news is that you can get to the truth in a professional way. Give them some truth serum. Out of context, these questions may seem hard, but they're not so bad when you put them in a context where you're looking to engage and not put people on the spot.

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