Ask that statement: For real impact, bake your statements into questions

You’re in a first meeting with a new potential customer. It’s a pickle processing plant. You sell mechanical and environmental systems to a wide range of commercial and industrial companies.

Turns out, though, that many of your customers are food-processing facilities. Needless to say you’re likely to be eager to get that fact out there so as to establish street cred with this prospect.

So after the usual small-talk warm up conversation you move quickly into your introductory message about your company: XYZ Systems. “XYZ provides state-of-the art mechanical and environmental solutions to a wide range of industries. However, our sweet spot is food processing. We have a number of customers in the food processing business so we think we understand this world better than most of our competitors.”

OK, I guess that could work. But does it really hit home? Does it grab the customer? Does it sound different from other elevator messages…really? Does it invite dialog on the subject? Most importantly, does it get you the cred you’re hoping for?

I don’t think it does. It may not go straight out the prospect’s other ear, but not as much of it is going to stick as you might hope. The problem is that it still sounds like a “salesperson’s elevator message.”

An example of “Asking a statement”

Rather than simply tell the prospect about your food processing expertise, why not frame up a question that puts that expertise on display?

Once you’ve got some rhythm going in the conversation, pause for a second. Then, with a pensive look on your face, consider this approach:

“…You know, it’s really interesting, as I think about you guys as a food processing company, it makes me wonder about something…for no necessarily deliberate reasons – it just sort of happened that way – we have multiple customers that are in the food processing business. And one of the things that we’ve observed over the years is that, on the one hand, there are a few system demands that all of them have in common: FDA/FP-20 audits, FPMA standards, and of course – the one they all seem to really love – the annual DATCAP review. At the same time, they each have one or two system demands that are uniquely their own: Seafood processers have a few of their own, likewise dairy processers and meatpacking plants. To what extent do you guys – as a pickle processing plant (trust me, I had to practice that one) have system demands that virtually all food processers share and, maybe more importantly, do you have system demands that are unique to pickles?”

In the written form, the above question is wordy, quirky, and even clunky. But in the context of a spoken interaction with a prospect it will fundamentally change the conversation and direction of the meeting. It will give you the cred you’re looking for because it’s different, it demonstrates your nuanced knowledge of food processing without being showy, and it invites the customer to think and respond.

The great frame-up

The tool used above is one that has appeared in these pages before. It’s called “framing language.” Framing adds context, clarity and interest to questions and statements.

In the world of conducting sales interactions, questions and statements should be framed, not simply asked or stated. Why?

  • The information we’re looking for is usually very different from the question we need to ask to get that information.
  • A point we want to communicate is often communicated more effectively if the point is not communicated verbatim.
  • We can sometimes leverage seek mode to “tell” the customer things about our company’s expertise, experience, strengths, qualifications, etc. by communicating those things in the form of a question to the customer instead of a statement about us. (eg: the pickle example above).
  • We can sometimes call attention to our competitor’s weakness, deficiencies or lack of qualifications/expertise without ever mentioning them – directly OR indirectly. In other words, the customer merely has to connect a few simple dots to draw the correct conclusion.

Efficiency is the enemy of framing

The biggest challenge I have in teaching framing skills to salespeople is overcoming their self-imposed (sometimes I’m inclined to say, “self-inflicted”) need for efficiency in their customer conversations. The framed statement above contains 166 words. Its unframed declarative statement: “Food processing is our sweet spot” contains six.

“Customers need me to get to the point!” is the pushback I usually get.

Two things are driving this fear. First, when you are in tell mode (versus seek mode) – and all salespeople come pre-wired to operate in tell mode – customers do want you to get to the point.

Second – and this is the more insidious reason – our self-imposed need to “get to the point” stems largely from our inherited master/servant mindset. We convince ourselves that we don’t want to waste the customers’ oh-so-precious-time since, after all, we are just salespeople.

Jerry Stapleton is the founder of Waukesha-based Stapleton Resources LLC (www.stapletonresources.com). He is also the author of the book, “From Vendor to Business Resource.”

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