Probe not: The secret to extraordinary information in sales

How would you complete this sentence: “I would get perfect results if I had perfect ___________ and perfect ___________?”

In our training, we have salespeople do just that, then hand in their responses. We then read (anonymously) all responses back to them. But we tell them that we’ve inserted a response of our own (anonymously, of course) among those that we read back to them.
After hearing the many responses, the students then fill in the blanks a second time. Almost without fail they choose the response we included: “differentiation” and “information.”
We follow that with a few more activities that cause them to arrive at an irrefutable truth: all barriers between salespeople and their results boil down to those two.
In fact, if you think about it, virtually all sales training seeks to address getting more information and/or better differentiation.
Let’s talk about one of them: information…and why salespeople systematically sabotage their efforts to gain it!
May I probe you?
That’s strong language, I know. But after a few more revealing activities virtually all of our students step forward and voice their agreement; and not through coercion and convincing, but through a process of self-discovery.
Here’s why, and what you can do about it.
First, statistically (we’ve been measuring it for years), all salespeople believe that the ability to “probe for information without the customer ever knowing” is a skill that leads to extraordinary results. Fact is, it doesn’t. In fact, that way of thinking is at the heart of why salespeople sabotage their own efforts to get information (and unwittingly hurt differentiation as collateral damage).
For starters, customers always know when a salesperson is probing! No salesperson alive is that “good.” Besides, it’s odd that salespeople don’t want the customer to know they’re seeking information. Why not?
The surprising key to extraordinary information
We then proceed to the most eye-opening activity of the series on information gathering. It’s shown in figure 1.
Students are asked to circle what they believe is the correct selection from the 11 shown. Virtually nobody selects No. 5: “They haven’t given the customer enough reason to give them extraordinary information.”
We then play multiple audio illustrations – good and bad – of attempts by salespeople at gaining information. Following these examples, we let students resubmit their selection. At this point, about 80 percent now choose selection No. 5. It’s breathtaking…and beautiful!

Figure 1: The key to extraordinary information in sales

Circle the number of the one response below that you believe best explains why salespeople don’t get extraordinary information (Circle only one)

  1. They’re afraid to ask because they don’t feel like they have the right to the information.
  2. They ask the wrong people.
  3. They ask the wrong questions.
  4. They haven’t asked the questions the right way.
  5. They haven’t given the customer enough reason to give them extraordinary information.
  6. They don’t know what information they should be looking for.
  7. They haven’t built enough of a relationship with the customer.
  8. Extraordinary information is usually proprietary so customers can’t share it.
  9. The information they attempt to get is too narrow in its focus.
  10. Because salespeople are generally just not good listeners.
  11. All of the above more or less equally explain why salespeople don’t get extraordinary information.

Make me want to share information with you
Bottom line: customers will share information with salespeople to the extent that they trust that it’s in their best interest to do so. In other words, customers share information to the extent that they, well, feel like it!
How do you do that? Start by realizing that a trusting relationship has way less to do with it than you might think. Second, harness the power of language to create an atmosphere of information exchange, not information extraction.
Words work
Try shedding certain words and phrases from your vocabulary. Chief among them, ironically, are “information” and “ask you some questions.” But others are almost as bad, “Pick your brain” and “Sit down and dialog,” just to add a few more examples.
You must get comfortable with language like, “I’d like to take a step back and go into homework mode,” or “I’m hoping we can leave the day-to-day stuff at the door,” just to name a few.
Learn to actively create an atmosphere of information exchange – not extraction, which is the passive default – and be prepared to be amazed.
Jerry Stapleton is the founder of Delafield-based Stapleton Resources LLC ( He is also author of the book, “From Vendor to Business Resource.”

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