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Peeling the Onion

In a perfect world, salespeople and customers communicate openly, honestly, and with complete clarity about the problems the customer is experiencing. But we don't work in a perfect world. In the real world of enterprise sales, customers are often unaware of the full extent of their problems; even when they do understand them, they are just as often reluctant to share that information. Salespeople don't usually ask what they really want to know first, and customers don't usually say what they really mean first. This lack of openness, which we all exhibit to one degree or another, is a natural and common protective behavior that has evolved from childhood.

When we communicate through the critical perspective of our customers, we begin to overcome the barriers to communication. Empathy, however, is not enough. Our customers need to be assured that it is safe to share information with us and that we will not use the information they provide to manipulate them. We communicate that assurance by our willingness to walk away from an engagement whenever the facts dictate that there is no fit between the customer's situation and our offerings. This is no sacrifice on the salesperson's part. When we spend time with a customer who has no problem, we simply waste our most valuable resource—our time.

The second way we assure our customers that we can be trusted is to approach a diagnosis at the customer's pace. Leading a witness is forbidden in a courtroom and should also be forbidden in the enterprise sale. Customers must discover, understand the impact of, and take ownership of problems before deciding to seek a solution. Yet, customers rarely reach conclusions about their problems at the same time that salespeople do. When salespeople move too quickly and too far ahead of their customers, they create a gap that customers often see as applying pressure or manipulation. The result is mistrust and a confrontational atmosphere.

Crossing customers' emotional barriers to get to the heart of the issues that concern them is like peeling an onion. When we "peel the onion," we accomplish two goals. First, we pass through the layers of protection that customers use to shield themselves from the potentially negative impact of open communication. We move from cliché (which is the surface level of emotion) through levels of fact and opinion to the most powerful driver of change—true feelings.

Key Thought The Three Most Important Words in Communication: Nurture, Nurture, and Nurture

People reveal their true feelings and problems only when they believe that their input will be respected and no negative consequences will result from the information they share. Enterprise salespeople are careful to communicate by word and deed that they mean customers no harm. This nurturing attitude enables open communication and mutual understanding and maximizes the probability of a quality decision.

We peel the onion using a series of deliberately structured questions, which we call a diagnostic map. Too often, salespeople ask questions simply to prolong conversations until they can create openings to present their solutions. The result is surface communication and superficial engagement. The diagnostic map, on the other hand, is designed to explore issues in an accurate and efficient way while creating the trust needed to elicit forthright answers from our customers.

One way we move through a diagnostic map is with the assumptive question. Assumptive questions are phrased in a way that assumes the customer is capable and knowledgeable. It is a good way to communicate respect and engender trust. This phrasing is very important.

When we worked with a company selling disaster recovery software, we found that its salespeople were using a slide presentation designed to educate their clients about the risks they were incurring without their software. One slide boldly stated: "Eighty percent of companies under 50 MM in sales do not have disaster recovery systems." The salesperson would then ask, "Do you?" If you were the customer confronted with such a question, how would you react?

In contrast, we designed an assumptive question to address the same situation: "When you put together your disaster recovery plan, which of the potential bottlenecks gave you the most concern?" This implies that the customer knows his or her business, and because it assumes the best, the customer is complimented by that assumption and it makes the customer feel safe enough to admit that there is no plan in place. It has the added benefit of introducing the idea that the customer might be exposed to a serious, and thus far, unaddressed risk. The sequence of thoughts the customer goes through is (1) feeling complimented, (2) realizing they haven't considered the issue, and (3) recognizing the sales professional has added considerable value by introducing a topic that should not be overlooked, thus creating trust of the sales professional, concern for the issue, and credibility of the sales professional in preventing a flawed decision.

The second goal of peeling the onion is to establish the existence and extent of the problem itself. Again, questions play the starring role in this work. A second type of question, the indicator question, is used to identify the symptoms of the kinds of problems our offerings are designed to solve. An indicator is a physical signal. It is a recognizable event, occurrence, or situation that can be seen, heard, or perceived by the customer. It doesn't require an expert opinion, and we are not asking the customer to self-diagnose. Instead, we are simply asking for an observation.

The difference between opinion and observation is important; the easiest way to make it clear is to look to the medical profession. If a heart surgeon made a diagnosis as a conventional salesperson does, it might sound like this:

SURGEON: "So, how are you feeling today?" PATIENT: "Great. I feel good."

SURGEON: "Have you been thinking about doing anything with your heart?"

PATIENT: "Well, quite a few of my friends have been having heart surgery. So I thought maybe I should consider it, too!"

SURGEON: "Are you leaning toward angioplasty or bypass?"

It's a silly exchange, but notice that it is based on self-diagnosis. The doctor is asking the patient for an expert opinion, and that is exactly what the conventional salesperson does. In reality, doctors don't put much value in patients' opinions, but they do value patients' observations. They ask indicator questions, such as "Have you noticed any shortness of breath lately?" and "Have you experienced any dizziness or numbness?" These questions ask the patient for an observation and lead to additional questions and a more in-depth diagnosis.

At this point, the salespeople who attend our seminars often ask what to do if no problem indicators are present in a customer's organization. The answer is simple: The engagement is over, or at least the diagnosis is postponed until such indicators appear. If there are no indicators, there is no problem. No problem means no pain; thus, the probability that the customer will make a decision to change is very low. It is time for the salesperson to move this customer into his or her opportunity management system and engage new customers who are experiencing the indicators of the problems he or she solves.

Another tool for tapping into the desire to be understood is a question called the conversation expander. Like indicator questions, these questions give our customers the opportunity to expand on explanations and clarify their thoughts. We can ask them at any stage of the sale process. Examples for use during problem analysis are shown in Figure 5.1.

Indicator Expansion

Could you expand a bit on ...?

Tell me more about ...

You mentioned a concern about ... Could you walk me through that?

Could you help me understand ...?

Example of Situation

What would be an example of ...?

Could you give me an example of. ...?

What would an example of ... look like in your business/industry?

I'm not clear how ... works. Can you give an example?


When did you first start to experience ...?

When did you first notice ...?

Has ... been happening for long?

How often does ... happen?

Figure 5.1: Conversational Expanders

Key Thought No Pain—No Change, No Change—No Sale

When indicators are present, however, we continue the questioning process to expand our own—and the customer's—understanding of the problem. We continue peeling the onion and exposing the full dimensions of the problem by creating sequences of linked questions. We link questions by building each new question on the customer's answer to the previous question. When we do this, we are encouraging further explanation and additional detail. Communications experts tell us that humans have a natural desire to be understood. With each new question, we tap into that desire in our customers and together reach a deeper understanding and a greater level of clarity about the problem.

We ask diagnostic questions to establish a chain of causality. Indicators represent the symptoms of a problem, but symptoms represent only clues to actual causes of a problem. As any doctor will tell you, eliminating the symptoms of a problem does not solve the problem. For instance, a patient may use an antacid to ease the pain caused by an ulcer, but the antacid does not cure the ulcer nor does it address the causes of the ulcer. In fact, eliminating symptoms often masks the problem and even exacerbates them, enabling the problem to continue undetected.

We identify the causes of problems by asking questions about their indicators. When we determine the causes of a problem, we have also reached causes of the customer's dissatisfaction. That dissatisfaction is the vehicle that drives the decision to change, but simply establishing the existence of a problem is not a complete diagnosis.

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