Don’t just ask

Shortly after John Paul II became pope, he was interviewed by an Italian journalist, Vittorio Messori. That interview became the best-selling book, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope.”

I read the book. It was memorable for many reasons. One in particular was the way in which the journalist asked his questions, or more accurately, “framed” them. His first question of the newly elected pontiff covered a page and a half…just the question!

Salespeople could borrow a page from Messori’s technique.

In the world of conducting sales interactions, questions should be framed, not simply asked. 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.
  • We can sometimes call attention to our competitor’s weakness, deficiencies, 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.

Framing is, simply, the art of adding context – and interest – to questions.

Here’s a simple illustration. All buying decisions are made based on one thing: the bottom line…not price! The two are – or can be – very different. Companies arrive at their own version of the bottom line on any purchase in wildly different ways. Some arrive at their version of the bottom line by trying to commoditize everything in order to comfort themselves with the belief that an initial purchase price (you know, “apples-to-apples”) calculation will lead to the best “bottom line” decision.

Other companies go to the opposite extreme and arrive at their version of the bottom line by factoring every imaginable short and long-term tangible and intangible measure they can come up with into their measurement.

Both of these extremes are, nonetheless, pure bottom line buying decisions, but only one is a pure “price” buy.

The question, “What role will price play in the decision?” therefore, is a useless, if not misguided, question. It all but guarantees some kind of boilerplate answer about price being important but not the only factor. Can’t really take that one to the bank and deposit it, can we?

Still, getting some feel for how this customer might arrive at its version of the “bottom line” for this purchase could be quite useful. Enter framing.

Why not, then, frame up our question along the lines of:

“Let me ask you something, Mr. Customer – and bear with me as I want to make sure I get the right context into this question – but our observation is that, practically speaking, all buying decisions are made based on one thing: the bottom line!

“However, it’s also been our observation that companies arrive at their own version of the bottom line on any purchase in wildly different ways. At one extreme, some companies arrive at their version of the bottom line by trying to commoditize everything, allowing them to use an initial purchase price (you know, apples-to-apples) calculation to perform their bottom line calculation.

“At the same time, other companies go to the opposite extreme and arrive at their version of the bottom line by factoring every reasonable short and long-term tangible and intangible measure they can come up with into their bottom line calculation.

“Both of these extremes are, nonetheless, pure bottom line buying decisions. Which end of that philosophical spectrum would you say XYZ Company leans toward, in general, and to what extent will that leaning apply to this particular purchase?”

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 question above contains 183 words. Its unframed antecedent, “What role will price play in the decision?” contains eight.

“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 (vs. 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 customer’s oh-so-precious time since, after all, we are just salespeople.

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