(Spoiler alert: It’s all about the “ask”.)
Whether you sell professional services to executives and high net worth individuals or widgets to consumers, it is absolutely vital to instantly establish and maintain a strong rapport with prospects. You have to get them to know, like and trust you. Quickly. You have to make an emotional connection. Bond with them. Emotion affects decision making. And it is critical that rapport-building begin from your very first contact. Forthwith.
Developing an instant rapport with strangers does not come naturally to most people. Successful salespeople have developed their social (selling) skills over time, evolving their techniques and adapting to the changing needs and behaviors of their target markets. We are not as trusting, as a society, as we were a century ago. Trust must be earned; it is no longer delivered part and parcel with a particular role, degree or certification.
Those same successful salespeople know that the key to bridging the gap from trust to rapport is to ask questions. Less savvy peddlers ask each of their prospects the same tired, rote questions, hoping that one of the questions will resonate. If not, oh well. They tried.
92% of the time you spend talking about your company or services, you’re not believable. And the more self-promotional hoopla you pitch, the more unbelievable you become. You are actually making yourself LESS trustworthy and slowly killing any chance of establishing rapport you might have had. The sale is essentially lost. Or at least will take much longer to get back on track while you work hard to re-establish the lost connection.
Listening is the first step to developing trust. Without trust, you won’t discover the true nature of the problem, which means that you won’t be able to frame your solutions in a meaningful and relevant way that your prospects will respond to. Which will result in missed opportunities.
It takes more than a script of questions to get your prospects to know, like and trust you. They need to believe that you care about them. They need to identify with you and what you stand for. They need to recognize that you are more than just a talking head seeking a sale to pad your pockets.
Assuming you want to grow prospect rapport rather than kill it, what kinds of questions SHOULD you ask? It can take a little finesse (and excellent observation skills) to understand when to back off on asking too many questions of sensitive prospects and when to keep up the pace with impatient prospects. Experience helps, as does preparation and doing a little research ahead of time.
Meanwhile, here are four types of questions that will help you naturally expedite that critical emotional connection with your prospects while obtaining the thoughtful answers that you need to build your custom solution package around.
1. Ask Reflective, Clarifying Questions
Performing a modicum of research in advance will help you ask astute questions and receive expressive answers. Don’t expect your prospects to explain who they are or what they do. Give them a very brief summary of your understanding, and then demonstrate your sincere interest in their situation and needs by asking them to tell you more. Reflective questions make your prospects think before answering, clarify the topic, and are helpful in eliciting the most honest and forthright responses. Here are some examples:
- What keeps you up at night?
- What are you doing now that is working?
- What is not working that you want to change?
- What are your priorities?
- What are your overall goals?
- What do you hope to accomplish?
- What obstacles do you feel are in your way?
- Which solutions have been successful in the past?
- What prompted you to seek a solution at this particular time?
It is important to listen to what they say. Don’t interrupt, trying to squeeze in another question from your script. Just listen. And take mental notes.
2. Ask Open-Ended Questions
Questions that are easily answered with a brisk “yes” or “no” won’t help your prospect open up (or warm up) to you. Your goal is to have a dialogue, not conduct an interrogation. Open-ended questions are one of the most valuable methods to establish two-way communication and put your prospects at ease. Journalists are adept at open-ended questions. They know to ask the five Ws: who, what, when, where, why (and, as a bonus, how). Here are a few examples:
- Why do you want to make a change?
- How do you expect this to change your business/life?
- What would make this no longer a priority?
- How did you identify potential solutions?
- How do you measure the success of this initiative?
- Who could stand in your way of meeting your goals?
You can certainly draft a collection of common open-ended questions that are likely to be appropriate for your particular service area and target markets, provided you don’t use the list as a crutch. Let what you hear lead you into the next question, rather than letting your list dictate the chronology or topics.
3. Ask Hypothetical Questions
Some sales experts would tell you to avoid hypothetical questions. I disagree. Hypothetical questions are often the best way to qualify prospects in such a way that they may not even realize that they are being qualified. They give you the opportunity to feel your prospects out by taking them out of their reality and placing them in a fantasy world where anything is possible (and affordable). They also enable you to gauge the emotional stage your prospects are at and how likely they are to move forward with a purchase in the near future. Here are some examples:
- Let’s say all of your obstacles were removed, what would you do?
- In a perfect world, how would you go about meeting your goals?
- If you had the resources you need, would that change your plans?
- What would you do if you have two suddenly-free hours in the day?
Caution: One type hypothetical question to avoid is “How much would a product that does X, Y, and Z be worth to you?” Pricing discussions should typically be reserved for a second, or even third, meeting, and not occur during the initial discovery, rapport-building meeting.
4. Ask Echoing Questions
Listening to your prospects’ answers and rephrasing them as questions shows your prospects that you are listening – and hearing – them. It also confirms that you have understood what they are trying to tell you. Echoing their words or phrases in the form of a question demonstrates your commitment while also forging a subconscious bond between you. You can also maximize the impact by incorporating your prospects’ feelings into the way you restate the sentiment. Echoing questions are only effective in small doses and can become annoying fairly quickly, so use them somewhat sparingly. Here are some examples:
- So, are you concerned about the strategy you have designed?
- Are you worried that your plan will not be approved?
- Is lack of buy-in what has prevented you from pursuing a solution in the past?
- Do you fear not having the resources to be successful in your endeavors?
Echoing questions, especially those with an emotional context, help validate your prospects’ concerns. You will be one step closer to rock-solid rapport.
You can build trust and rapport quickly by adjusting your strategy so that you are perceived as legitimately interested in providing custom solutions to your prospects that will help them succeed. Listen to what your prospects tell you. Let them guide your discussion. Remember not to prompt or lead them. You want their answers to be organic, not falsely turned in your preferred direction. That will only set the sale off track. Avoid interrupting them while they answer. Ask one question at a time and listen attentively.
Utilize these kinds of rapport-building questions with new prospects and enhance relationships with your existing clients. Develop your own cheat sheet if you must. Over time, and with practice, you won’t need it anymore.