I have always told it this way – the difference between a good accountant and a great accountant is that a great accountant asks better questions than a good accountant. That is never more applicable when it comes to your prospect meetings. Questions allow you to probe and your prospect to speak. But what questions to ask? This article follows on in my series which is intended to enhance your sales skills and success.
You now have created a selling opportunity — a face-to-face meeting. That meeting can determine whether you get the client now, later, or never.
Key Point: For prospects to change accountants, they must be dissatisfied with their current state of affairs. Use the interview to find, awaken, and stimulate that dissatisfaction about the current situation in order to convince the prospect to make changes, such as choosing your firm as their new accountants.
The meeting has three parts:
- The interview (or diagnosis)
- Demonstrating your capability (prescribing your solution or response to the prospect’s needs), and
- Obtaining commitment for the next step.
At the interview (and it can be more than one meeting) you gather the data about the prospect’s needs and wants that allows you to address specific service opportunities and convince a current or prospective client to engage your firm to perform these services.
Key Point: Think of the interview as diagnosing the prospect’s problem.
During the response you address specific service opportunities and show the prospect you have a valuable solution.
Key Point: Think of the response as prescribing the solution to the prospect’s problem.
Finally, obtain an agreement to take an appropriate next step that Advances the sale. Ultimately, that step will be an agreement for you to perform those services for the [now] client.
Key Point: Think of the commitment as the close for this sales contact, or, to continue our medical analogy, the prospect agrees to treatment so you can cure the problem.
Communication is over once someone perceives a threat.
Watch for non-verbal messages. What are people saying who aren’t saying anything?
Don’t give premature answers; allow yourself time to think. Don’t try to solve anything in 20 minutes. If the matter is important, it deserves the time. And taking more time makes your response more credible.
Accountants love checklists. Clients hate boiler plate or anything that doesn’t acknowledge the unique situation of their business or their affairs.
Yet we need checklists to ensure that we don’t overlook something important.
How can we reconcile these two opposed ideas?
ASK TO ASK
The person who asks the questions controls the conversation. Always begin the interview by “asking to ask.” Say something like, “May I ask you a few questions?” Or “To save time and to zero in on the areas most important to you, can I ask you a few questions?” You want the prospect to do most of the talking, particularly if you are not knowledgeable about the company or industry.
There are many benefits of asking questions of the prospect:
- You can confirm or correct information you have gathered from other sources
- You acquire additional information that helps you understand the prospect and start the buying process
- You may discover the prospect’s hot buttons
- You get the prospect talking, which is sometimes difficult to do
- The prospect feels more comfortable around you
- You demonstrate your interest in the prospect and their business
- You demonstrate your expertise by the quality of the questions.
Take notes, the more the better:
- Ask permission to take notes, telling prospects you want to refresh your memory and ensure that you get the essence of their ideas accurately
- Look for main ideas. Do not record word-for-word. You can avoid an awkward silence while you write by commenting about what you are recording
- Look at the prospect as often as possible. Keep your posture relaxed and interested
- Read back factual notes periodically to make sure you have your facts straight
- Assume that everything you write will be printed on the front page of your local newspaper. In other words, do not make any personal observations about the prospect or the company that you would not want anyone but you to read. It is amazing the number of people who can read upside-down.
QUESTIONS AND SALES SUCCESS
The more you ask appropriate questions the more successful the diagnosis (and the meeting).
Some types of questions have more value than others. For generations sales books and courses have discussed closed questions and open questions. Traditional sales training claims that salespeople should ask open questions in preference to closed questions because open questions get the prospect talking and often reveal unexpected information. Traditional sales training aims to get salespeople to use more open questions.
Remember that closed questions can be answered with one or two words and do not encourage the answerer to keep talking. They frequently contain forms of the verbs be, do, and have.
- “Have you ever had an audit before?”
- “When did you start the business?”
- “How long have you been at this location?”
Caution: If the answer is recorded on their website, make sure you have read it there. Don’t ask at the meeting. They’ll conclude that you have not done your research.
Open questions keep people talking and encourage them to improvise and expand their answers. Usually they contain words like who, what, when, where, why, and how.
- “Why do you think you might need an audit after all these years?”
- “What need did you see in the market that caused you to start the company?”
- “Why did you choose this particular location?”
- “How do you feel about…?”
- “What do you think about…?”
But a word of caution: ‘Why’ questions can make people defensive.
The traditional one-call salespeople use closed questions to set up an open question, to obtain facts they need to convert “needs” to “wants,” or to verify information. Using open questions, as opposed to closed questions, has little effect on sales success. Instead, successful salespeople ask a question in a certain sequence.
Situation questions gather data about facts and background. Each one has a focus, a particular purpose.
- “Do your own your own building?”
- “Could you tell me about your company’s experience with your prior accounting firms?”
- “Where does your sales and use tax audit stand now?”
- “How would you describe your relationship with your bank?”
CAUTIONS ABOUT SITUATION QUESTIONS
Successful salespeople use situation questions judiciously because they can bore or irritate the prospect.
Think of them as the medical questionnaire the doctor/dentist makes you fill out when you visit their office. People do not like to fill out medical questionnaires. Like the medical questionnaire, situation questions relate to facts which the prospect knows intimately and which he or she may already have recounted numerous times to other accountants or their own employees.
Clients have similar problems with “training” your new employees on their engagements when they have to re-explain the situation to new people.
Certainly, situation questions do not point the way toward a solution. The prospect’s attention span is short on situation questions because they do not help him or her to see anything new about their business or its problems.
Many accountants overuse situation questions because we use them as diagnostic tools to assess how we can help the prospect. We also overuse them because they are easy to ask and normally do not offend anyone. Sometimes we overuse them simply because we do not know what to do next.
Key Point: Situation questions benefit the salesperson, not the prospect.
Therefore, ask as few situation questions as possible. Instead, do your homework before the meeting and find out all you can so you do not bore the prospect. You cannot bore people into buying.
Next Up – PROBLEM QUESTIONS
Problem questions explore difficulties and dissatisfactions in areas where the seller can help. Use them as soon as you have sufficient information about the prospect’s situation to indicate a probable area where your expertise can help.
More insights and great questions up next time
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As ever, honoured to serve you and this amazing profession