If you are anything like me, when you became sales manager, you bought sales manager how-to books, attended all the management seminars that you and the company could afford, and you try as best you can to get the job done. But sometimes the best advice in the world comes from the most unlikely of places. In my case, the best management advice I ever got came from an Italian stone mason.
He and I were standing at the base of my then dirt driveway which led up toward the house. I had contacted him because on the bulletin board at the local morning coffee and newspaper pit stop, I had seen his business card which simply stated “Stone Walls” and his phone number. Eloquence like that needs to be rewarded.
“What do you want?” he asked in a heavily accented voice. He was no more than five-and-a-half feet tall, very thin, balding, and seemed to be at least in his sixties. I wondered if he were up to the job.
“I’d like a wall from here,” I said, pointing to where the driveway ended at the street, “back up to that huge eucalyptus tree.”
“I understand you want a wall; that I already know. Why would you call me otherwise? What do you want?”
“Well, I want a wall separating the driveway from this side of the property.”
“I know that. You told me the first time. What do you want?”
What I wanted at the moment was to never have called him. I was getting really annoyed.
“Look,” I said, not even trying to keep the anger out of my voice, “I want a wall made out of flat stone, about three feet high, two feet wide on top, that won’t ever fall apart and if you need to use cement, I don’t want the cement to show.”
“That’s good; you told me what you want.”
I guess it was at that moment when I realized he was right. For close to a minute, I couldn’t think of a single thing to say. When the anger had finally left, and I could trust myself to say more, I added, “and I want to have natural-looking stones, not ones that look like someone cut them perfectly with a knife.”
“That’s good, too,” he added, “I want to do this job. You want to hire me?”
I got what I wanted. Exactly.
The stone mason was right. I didn’t tell him what I wanted until the third time. The same situation exists with salespeople.
If you ask a salesperson “why” he is not meeting his goals, or any other “why not” question, what are you going to hear? Nine times out of ten you will hear his rationalizations. Lousy leads, lousy time of year, haven’t tried hard enough, don’t know what else to try, no good at cold calling. These are all rationalizations that do neither you nor him any good. What does hearing this accomplish? Nothing.
Consider asking a “what” question instead. Just as with my instructor the mason, you may actually have to ask it two or three times to get a real answer.
“What are you doing to meet your goals?” You may hear “lousy leads.” Now you have set yourself up to ask, “What are you doing about the lousy leads?”
“What are you doing about the lousy time of year?” Asking this will force the salesperson to consider his current behavior and think of alternative behavior.
Keep in mind that to answer a “what” question will take a person longer to begin to answer. In some situations, up to half a minute would not be unusual. In some situations you may get a “kind of” answer almost immediately, but don’t say anything. The “kind of” answer is the person’s way of buying himself some extra time to formulate a better answer.
To get even more information, once the person gives you a partial “what” answer, rephrase it as a question and then ask it back. While you are asking the rephrased question, the salesperson will already be working on an answer.
“What is important about my not closing this sale this week is that . . .”
Your rephrase: “That’s interesting, not closing this sale this week could also mean what?“
You may get a strange look at this point, but then you will also hear additional information that will help the salesperson to do something about the situation.
“What” information can help a salesperson formulate his needs. As the needs are formulated, so might steps be developed to solve those needs.
The answers to “what” questions are steps that can be taken. The answers to “why” questions are rationalizations. Which one moves you toward managing salespeople?
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