Thursday, August 28, 2008

Ask 'why' Five Times

Is the method Taiichi Ohno, the pioneer of Toyota's production systems recommended to get to the root cause of a problem. My idea was that this principle could also serve well in sales. Here is an example how it could be used to find out whether there is an opportunity and if it is real and worth while winning.

I am aware that good sales people know the power of questioning instead of providing the potential buyer with a laundry list of features and benefits. Being able to ask pertinent questions requires preparation. Preparation is more than amassing information. I suggest that already during preparation the following 5 'why' questions can be used for a more focused approach.

I assume every salesperson has a list of potential targets. Maybe not all the lists are explicitly documented, that does however not mean they do not exist. Those salespeople who are reluctant to make it explicit should however be aware that they cannot ask for help or coaching. In any case the following questions can help you to prioritize the targets.

Why might/does my target want to buy? If after research and reflection you cannot find the answer seen from the target's view point, this indicates that your target is most likely not a valid prospect to spend further time on right now? I do not have the space here to deal with the situation where you should find no suitable targets on the entire list. Maybe you can already guess though what to do. Ask a different series of 'Why' questions to understand what needs to be done.

Next follows a question which you might consider going against a salesperson's pride. Why does the target need my help for buying? Giving yourself an honest answer and maybe coming to the conclusion that no help is required, might prevent you from spending too much time on deals that probably will happen anyway. Actually I expect this situation to increase with the all the Sales 2.0 tools already existing and waiting to be used

Assuming , you found a reason, ask: Why should the target buy from you? This will help you to find qualitative elements for a value hypothesis and addressing also the emotional aspects. Even in B2B, emotions are involved. To find the rational reason for the decision is a necessary formality. Especially with this question it is hard to keep the customers point of view and not reverting to the inside out view of most marketing messages.

You can find the quantitative part of your value proposition needed for the rational reasoning by asking. Why should your target spend the money you will ask for?

I insist, all your answers to the above questions must be from the customer's perspective. Be also warned Even then they are still your hypothesis which need confirmation when you finally are talking to the target. Despite all this insight, you are not ready yet to pitch. If you do it, you take a big risk of being perceived as manipulative by your target. But you are much better armed to have a conversation where you can gain credibility by asking pertinent questions. Not having taken the target's view will though make it impossible to gain confirmation of your hypothesis.

There is one last question: Why should you do a deal with your target? you must answer from your view point if you do not want to be stuck with “bad business” regretting for having done the deal in the first place. It also helps you staying out of trouble with your management justifying why you did a potentially unprofitable deal.

What is in for you?

It helps you spend quality time with the right people, at the right point in time, with the right topics. Instead of trying to get in front of as many targets as you can. There are anyway fewer targets in a tough economy and you will have to spend even more time than usual just to find them so you can hope for the numbers game to play out. These efforts for finding more targets will go to the detriment of time you can spend with targets that want to buy and need your help.

You also gain credibility with your targets that you approach them with an attitude of service and contribution and you should have less time to spend with objection handling if at all.

Finally knowing the 'why' is not sufficient but it helps you tremendously to pro-actively plan the 'what' and the 'how' to say and do. Your actions will thus not be applied unreflected form a standard repertoire . They are put into customer context. Knowing the 'why' also allows you to be more creative with planning the 'what and the 'how' instead of rigidly following a prescribed set of actions predefined in your sales process. But you only gain this freedom if you understand the 'why' you are doing it.

In summary, asking theses questions is helping you to make better use of your time through higher effectiveness. You can work smarter instead of harder .

Why is it hard anyway?

Becoming more effective is though also hard but more mentally than physically. Focusing requires to be able to say 'no'. This ability is not exactly the forte of sales people due to their generally optimistic nature. Especially in harsh market conditions, with dried up pipelines as we are currently facing or fearing, sales people and managers hope to be able to stay in their comfort zone by not wasting time with these probably perturbing questions and just focusing on the 'what' and the 'how'. In the worst case, managers will revert to telling their people exactly 'what' and 'how' to do it. By focusing on action and working probably harder than ever before, at least they can not be accused of not having tried hard. Although this is of little help when the revenue is not flowing as expected and right sizing measures will have to be applied to the sales force.

Is this counterintuitive? State of the art physics is also counterintuitive. Learning to live with counterintuitive principles in sales might be what it takes to develop it from an art to a science; where we understand why something works instead of just copying actions from someone else who claimed having had success with a certain approach in the past.

You might want to consult “Counter-Intuitive Selling” by Bill Byron Concevitch to familiarize yourself with the idea. You might have seen what Jonathan Farrington, said in a recent post? 'The clock is ticking.'

Should you be interested in the original principle of Taiichi Ohno, here is a link to the information that can be found on the Toyota site.

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