op Sellers approach a sales call in a manner different from average sellers. The Top Seller is thinking about what he/she wants to learn in this call to help accomplish the goal. The Top Seller is curious. The goal is well-defined, and the pre-call thoughts are about what questions to ask and what information to look for to move the process forward. The average seller is thinking about what questions the prospect may ask of them! This is a critical difference between Top Sellers and average sellers. Top Sellers are thinking about what they need to learn, and average sellers are thinking about what they need to say. It is, therefore, not surprising that a Top Seller does far more listening in a sales call than an average seller.
Top Sellers know the power of knowledge. Information gives them confidence and an increased sense of the control they seek. As a result, they are always looking to see what they can learn that will help them achieve their goals. They ask questions and they listen.
A food ingredient company had been working with a major food processor for several years. The sales people worked closely with the R&D lab where new formulations were being tested. One day, while leaving the lab and walking through the main production floor, a new sales person on the team asked, “Isn’t that tomato soup?” “Yes, of course,” he was told. “That is our biggest seller.”
It turns out that tomato soup needs a key ingredient that was one of the primary products sold by the food ingredient company. But for two years or more, no one had ever asked what else the customer made and would there be other opportunities to sell them additional products. They had simply gone to the lab and sold small orders of their products. Until a new sales person, a potential “Top Seller”, joined the team, no one was curious enough to look around and ask about other applications.
Unlike the sales team above, Top Sellers are curious. They ask questions. They truly want to know. They are interested in what is around them and what they can learn from others to help them have an advantage. This curiosity can sometimes take the form of competitive intelligence gathering, such as reading a competitors invoice that was accidentally left on someone’s desk. Just as often, it is an active and conscious effort to ask questions and learn more about a customer as well as a market. It is not surprising, perhaps, that there is a program called “Question-Based Selling.” Top Sellers ask questions.
But these questions cannot be canned. They can’t learn “Five Questions to Ask Your Prospect.” True curiosity is not just an attitude. It is a behavior. Top Sellers are not looking for answers. They are looking for insights and information. They ask questions and listen to the answers. Top Sellers want to know what the prospect worries about and wants to achieve. What problems does the prospect have? What help does the customer need? How does the prospect want to be sold?
The questions that are important to a Top Seller are not “qualifying questions”. They are not part of “consultative selling”, a process that can test the patience of some buyers. The typical sales process where a sales person asks about needs or current vendors or similar “questionnaire” questions does not provide what Top Sellers want to know. In fact, such questions can seem like an interrogation and can be off-putting to prospects.
Top Sellers want to know who the prospect is, what is important to that person, and how is the best way to influence and make a difference to this individual. What is the business and where is the pain? Who are my competitors? Who is influential in making decisions in the business? What is your wish-list? These are more broad-based than “How many pounds of nitric acid do you use in a month?” These are things she can learn by listening and observing, not by following a checklist of questions. These are not answers to questions she has to ask because her sales manager requires them. These are answers she wants to discover to satisfy her curiosity and to give her an advantage.
It may be because of their curiosity that Top Sellers are good listeners and, often, good conversationalists. They often have a broader knowledge of topics and issues, and because they are always learning, they can talk intelligently about many different topics. Still, it is their ability to listen that most correlates with their success in sales. It is hard to sell value if you do not want to listen and learn.
Curiosity also fits well with the competitive drive of Top Sellers. Simply put, they want to know more than the next person. They want to know how someone else can sell or make a change, and they use that information to make themselves more competitive and successful.
Another key correlate of curiosity is the Top Sellers’ relative comfort with ambiguity. Few average sellers are comfortable outside the lines of what they expect and know and are accustomed to seeing. Top Sellers are not afraid of ambiguity, because they are curious. They want to know more. They want to understand and find clarity. Average sellers (and politicians) want to get back “on message” and talk about what they planned to talk about.
In a similar manner, Top Sellers leave a sales call re-playing the interaction in their head. They are thinking about what was said and what they could have said in a different manner. They are learning from their experience, even if they failed to achieve their goal. Every interaction becomes a learning experience. Average sellers typically are thinking about what they need to do next or where they need to go now that the sales call is concluded.
Curiosity does not typically equate to wanting to participate in “sales training”, however. Top Sellers are curious about ways to reduce their fear and the risk of failing with useful knowledge and information. While curious and motivated to learn what will give them better control and influence, they are not eager to participate in formal learning situations. They are skeptical. They are also fearful of looking foolish or stupid in front of their peers. Typical training programs are painful to most Top Sellers. Still, they will be curious and learn enough to use a new skill when they need it to win their goal.
The President of a small manufacturing company was a participant in a workshop on psychological selling skills. He was largely unimpressed with the program, because he believed he was a very successful seller and did not need to do the work needed to learn some new skills. In the participant survey, he did not rate the program very high.
The next week, he was making a sales presentation. Unfortunately, it was not going well, and he knew it. As he described it later, “I didn’t know what to do, so I tried one of the crazy things Lakin was talking about last week. All of a sudden, the room changed, and I got my price without any real pushback or negotiation. I would like to change my rating that I gave that presentation last week. It was definitely a ‘10’.”
Top Sellers, like most people, do not want to work hard enough to change how they do things. However, Top Sellers have the courage to notice when something is not working and the curiosity to ask themselves, “What else might work?” Others see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear. How often has a sales person told her manager, “Oh, I think it went very well” when, in fact, it did not go well at all. This is not a lie. This is simply failure to have the courage to notice when things are not going well.
Top Sellers expect to win, and they know when they are not winning. They have the determination to stay engaged and involved until they are successful (if possible). As a result, if they are aware of a new option or a new way to make a proposal, they will often be one of the first of their peers to try it. While not showing a lot of enthusiasm for the training per se, they will draw from that training when they need it.
Trainers should not expect Top Sellers to be enthusiastic participants in a training session, unless they can incorporate competitive games into the learning process. Yet Top Sellers are often the first to test a skill in the field and report results back to the others. But they will only use the skill when existing skills are not working for them and they ask themselves, “What else might work here?” Learning for the sake of learning will not motivate them. Learning must contribute to their sense of control over a situation when failure is suddenly a real possibility. When there is a chance they might fail, they will learn and use anything that is seen as a useful way to give them a competitive advantage.