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How to Better Engage Buyers in the First Sales Call

By David Jacoby

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Many sales leaders tend to over-focus on creating scripts for their sales teams. These include prospecting scripts, presentation templates, responses to common objections, and lists of questions to ask buyers. Scripts can be a great learning tool for your team to improve their selling skills, but you should use them with caution.

My experience with relying on scripts is that in the real world the sales rep comes off sounding like a person reading a script, not an engaged advisor. Reading from a script also makes it more difficult for the salesperson to listen. The sales person is so worried about getting the script right that they ignore what the other person is saying.  

One area where scripts won’t work at all is during the discovery process. Asking insightful questions is a complex process. Here the discussion can take so many unexpected turns that is unrealistic to stick to a generic list of questions. Also, who you're meeting with and where they are in the buying process—all influence what questions you need to ask the buyer.

Developing powerful questions starts with preparation. Whether you're leveraging an existing library of questions or creating questions from scratch, it’s imperative that you customize your questions for the buyer’s specific situation.

I recommend starting this preparation process by thinking of broad categories of information you're seeking from the buyer. For example, let’s assume you're preparing for an initial meeting with a buyer. Here are a few categories that will help you organize your thinking:

#1 Questions Not to Ask

As a rule, avoid asking any question that you can research and answer in advance of your meeting. For example, “So, tell me, Jane, what does your company do?” Asking these questions will lower your credibility as the buyer may think you haven’t prepared properly. If the information is available online, it’s your job to discover during your pre-call research.

#2 Background Information

Assuming you've done your research (see above), do you have a thorough understanding of the buyer’s business, goals, and challenges? This is an excellent opportunity to think about any knowledge gaps you have about the buyer. Are there any competitors?  Do you understand the decision-making process, the budgeting process? Do you know how your solution can create value for the buyer?  Significant gaps in your knowledge present a substantial threat to your ultimate sales success, so create questions to overcome these gaps.

#3 What’s the Problem?

Helping the buyer uncover and explore problems is the essence of consultative selling. However, preparing questions that prompt the buyer to “open up” and think about business problems or goals takes a substantial amount of preparation. You need to understand the buyer’s business and organization to get the buyer to discuss:

  • Why is it a problem?
  • What other problems does the buyer have?
  • Who else is being impacted?
  • How much is the problem costing you?
  • What will happen if the problem continues?

#4 Qualification

The purpose of qualifying an opportunity is to assess whether to invest your time in this opportunity. Remember, not every problem you identify translates into a qualified sales opportunity. Develop a qualification checklist so that you can quickly assess the quality of this particular opportunity. Some of these questions are obvious: What is your timeline? How do you make buying decisions?  Have you established a budget for this?  Other qualification questions may be subtler such as how can you get access to key decision makers?  Or, what is the strength of the buyer’s relationship with the competition?

Depending on the length of your meeting, you could also ask the buyer questions about what they are looking for in a solution, how they expect to benefit from a solution, and so on.   

Ultimately, the success of your sales team will be less dependent on the scripts they have and more a function of their skill level. The best sales reps invest the necessary time to prepare their questions in advance of sales calls. This preparation helps them better engage with buyers and also better control the sales conversation.

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About David Jacoby

David Jacoby
As a Managing Director at Sales Readiness Group, David helps large B2B sales organizations improve sales performance. Previously, David was a Principal at Linear Partners, a sales consulting firm providing sales strategy, sales operations, talent management, and interim management services to emerging growth companies. In the past, David has served as Vice President of Business Affairs of Xylo, Inc., where he was responsible for the Company's business development, sales operations, legal affairs, and financing activities.

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