The Best Sales Question is not Why, it is What


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The premise of the book by Michael Bungay Stanier’s titled The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever. is to teach managers how to make coaching part of their everyday job.  In  it, they drill down on 7 essential questions and as the authors say, “ to demonstrate how—by saying less and asking more–you can develop coaching methods that produce great results.”

The 7 Essential Questions:

  1. The Kickstart Question – What’s on your mind?
  2. The Awe Question – And What Else?
  3. The Focus Question – What’s the Real Challenge for You Here?
  4. The Foundation Question – What do you want?
  5. The Lazy Question – How Can I Help You?
  6. The Strategic Question – What Are You Saying No To?
  7. The Learning Question – What Was Most Useful for You?

In the Lean world, we can definitely relate to this thinking as it coincides with the Coaching Kata explained in Mike Rother’s book, Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness and Superior Results. At the foundation is what Rother calls the Coaching Kata that also has its own set of 5 questions (often expanded with 4 more).

  1. What is the target condition?
  2. What is the actual condition now? (This question is expanded on below)*
  3. What obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target condition? Which one are you addressing now?
  4. What is your Next Step? (next PDCA/experiment) What do you expect?
  5. When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?

*They expand this format to include these after Step 2: * Ask these questions to reflect on the last step, because you don’t actually know what the result of a step will be!

  1. What was your Last Step?
  2. What did you Expect?
  3. What Actually Happened?
  4. What did you Learn?

In Tony Ulwick’s work conceptualized in the book What Customers Want: Using Outcome-Driven Innovation to Create Breakthrough Products and Services, we start thinking about an outcome-based approach. Ulwick states; “An outcome-based approach to segmentation enables companies to devise product and service portfolios that deliver significant value, discover and size high-potential growth markets, create powerful outcome-based “purpose” brands and discover market entry points for disruptive technology.

His JTBD (Job-to-be-done) Interview Questions:

  1. What jobs are people trying to get done by hiring our products/services?
  2. What are the eventual outcomes they want by doing these jobs?
  3. Is this the primary job or is it one step in a chain of jobs?
  4. What are the jobs that lead into this?
  5. What jobs does this create for themselves and others? Who else will benefit?
  6. What environments are they in when performing their jobs?
  7. What restrictions do they face in performing their job?
  8. From their point of view, how happy/unhappy are they with the outcomes they are achieving in getting their jobs done?
  9. What advice could they give us and who else should we talk to?

He goes on to say, “ Companies must break out of the “label” or “attribute” mindset and accept a new type of information for use in segmenting markets. Using desired outcomes as the basis for segmentation changes the entire outlook of how products are created, positioned and communicated.”

This is a diagram that he uses to show the evolution of market segmentation.

Marketing Trend

All three approaches rely heavily on the “What” question. I make the above comparison to emphasize the mistaken notion of sales and marketing addressing customer through a needs-based approach. I see over and over again the general use of the “Why” questions. In an attempt, trying to solve the root cause of customer’s problems. The shame is that most of the time we are trying to move cause into our own product and service. It has become an ineffective strategy, and I might add an obsolete strategy. An outcome-based approach is the most effective strategy in sales and marketing today. Demonstrating how you can get the customer’s job done and adding extended value to that job is what sales is all about today.

In sales circles today you will hear arguments back and forth about not being invited to the table till 60% of the sales cycle is over (I can argue that position either way). You will also learn to understand that most sales request end in no-decision at all. Customers remain at the status quo. If these are not big enough issues that we have to face, we also limit ourselves by trying to dig deeper into customer’s problems by asking why. The vast majority are there trying to solve problems through the features and benefits they offer.

Why has a tendency to put us on the other side of the table. It puts customers on the defensive trying to establish ourselves as the expert, the-go-to-guy. It says to the customer that I am here to solve your problem with my product, and I will make it work for you. Focusing on “What” creates situational awareness. It creates a more collaborative atmosphere. We are in this together, and we can make the most of it. Would you rather work for someone or with someone’s product/service?

A Lean Salesperson Should Never Ask Why?

The idea of What elaborated in the above questions helps me to develop effective sales processes for my customers. I cannot tell you which of the three approaches above work better in the sales process than the other. I most often lean towards Stanier’s 7 Essential Questions. However, I think each of them has a place and should, of course, be modified to the situation. A general outline is demonstrated in the matrix below:

What Else Matrix

There are the exceptions, and the most debatable area would be the Existing Customers with New Products would have the tendency to favor a JTBD approach. But my point is not to create a harden process but to enable the use of the What question in our sales and marketing process.

When we think of salesperson ability to close, it may not surround itself by solving a customer’s problem. They are multiple avenues for customers to achieve that and more likely is a commodity trap. The real power, your ability to close in today’s world is solving something entirely different. At the basic level, we still need to solve the problem. More importantly, we need to solve something else, an unmet need. It comes from a question that is more powerful than the 5 Why’s, and Stanier calls it, for good reason, the Awe Question. Are you sales people asking,

“And What else?”

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Joseph Dager
Business901 is a firm specializing in bringing the continuous improvement process to the sales and marketing arena. He has authored the books the Lean Marketing House, Marketing with A3 and Marketing with PDCA. The Business901 Blog and Podcast includes many leading edge thinkers and has been featured numerous times for its contributions to the Bloomberg's Business Week Exchange.


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