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Asking Questions with Purpose – Tools for Effective Selling

By Dan Woods (2164 words)
Posted in Sales & Business Development on October 15, 2013

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I am inspired by my recent discussion with Deb Calvert, President & Founder of People First Productivity Solutions.  Inspired by the way she depicts the simplicity of selling, a topic that so many of us stress over, struggle to achieve, over complicate and most importantly…need to build our businesses.  Her curiosity and tenacity over the last 25 years to document sales methods-what works, what doesn’t and why, has brought her to a point where we can all benefit.  No matter what industry, not matter what job level, we all sell in some form or fashion.  Deb shares her career path, lessons learned as a seller and sales leader, as well as philosophy on how anyone can use communication to advance the sale to a close.  Now I am happy to share our discussion with you.


How a 25-Year Curiosity Developed into a Tool for Sales Professionals


Q: Tell us a little about your professional background and how your work in the Newspaper Industry helped shape your career.


I was very fortunate to have an 18-year career in the newspaper industry, working for a Fortune 500 company at the Director level after working in a large metro market in Sales, Operations and Human Resources. There are two things about my early career that equipped me to start my own business. First, newspapers employ incredibly talented and really smart people with a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives. Second, media companies are very dynamic and constantly evolving. By virtue of those two things, I was able to learn and experience much more than I might have in another industry. 


My background as a top seller, high-performing sales manager and innovative sales trainer also opened up a lot of opportunities for even more learning and development. For example, my research and think tank work with the Sales Advisory Board expanded my sales and leadership knowledge, learning from people around the world and from virtually every industry.  


Q: What is it about “Sales” that motivates you?


I personally believe sales is a noble profession. I enjoy the whole process of getting acquainted with people, understanding their needs and crafting solutions to genuinely meet those needs. It’s very gratifying to be able to do that. I’ve been selling since I was a Camp Fire Girl, many years ago, selling candy in the annual fundraiser. For me, selling lots of candy meant earning “camperships” to summer camp while also delighting people who bought the candy. I’ve been hooked on sales ever since. 


What motivates me to support sellers with resources, training, research, books and more is this – though noble, sales is also a profession plagued by negative stereotypes and bad examples. I want to give back something to the profession I’ve loved in a way that helps others enjoy it as I have.  One of the ways I get to do that is as the host of the CONNECT! Online Radio Show for Professional Sellers where I offer live on-air sales coaching. 


Q: There a lot of people that consider themselves to be in “Sales”, but how would you define what it means to be a true “Sales Professional”?


In my opinion, the difference is in the seller’s intent. Professionals can barely distinguish between sales and service activities because they set out with an intent to help their buyers. Unprofessional sellers are the ones who fuel those negative stereotypes because they enter into sales transactions with a dominant intent that is self-serving. While it’s true that sales can be a lucrative job, sellers who over-focus on their own commissions and goals lose sight of the true purpose of selling which is to provide something buyers want and need. Besides, the ones who stay focused on the buyer end up selling more.  


Q: What do you think are the major differentiators/qualities in sales professionals that dictate either a successful or unsuccessful career?


It’s the orientation to the buyer’s needs that sets a seller apart from the pack and makes him or her successful. This is exhibited in all sorts of behaviors – quality of listening and questions asked, whether or not value is truly created in every interaction with the buyer, customization of solutions for the buyer and so much more. 


Unfortunately, a lot of sellers and sales leaders get stuck in the wrong mode. They try to create generic pitches or processes. They go for quantity over quality. Or they focus on internal procedures and reports that deplete time that should be spent with buyers. All of these practices erode a seller’s ability to succeed.   


Q: Looking back on your career and based on what you know now, what are three things that you wish you had done or would have done a little differently?


Only three?!? 

  1. I wish I had been more confident in myself. I was very confident in my products, and I know that enabled me to sell effectively. But I was tentative in taking big career steps as early as I might have.

  2. If I could rewind, I’d do things differently in my first management job. I was promoted, as many sellers are, because of my selling skills and not because of demonstrated management or leadership skills. I feel so sorry for the sales people who were my first direct reports – I learned a lot by making mistakes, and that wasn’t fair to them. 

  3. I’ve learned over time to compete less and share more.  That came with maturity and security. 


Q: What are some common challenges organizations face when putting together effective sales teams? 


Like me, many sales managers are promoted into those roles because they were successful in selling. They haven’t had training in how to manage. This creates a myriad of challenges for selling organizations – high seller turnover, poor goal-setting and performance management practices, inaccurate forecasting, a lack of professional development at all levels, wasted time in meetings and with low-value activities, and so on… 


Chief among those problems, all stemming from a lack of manager training, is building an effective sales team. Knowing how to hire and how to coach sellers makes all the difference in the world when it comes to sales productivity. I see this far more often than not in sales organizations. 


Q: Could you describe the most effective sales team you have worked with and what role did leadership play in the organizations success?


I have seen a number of high-functioning sales teams in a variety of industries. In every example, it does tie back to the leadership of the team. In sales, part of leading includes setting sellers up for success in removing obstacles and providing a strong foundation of skills and support but then getting out of the way. Sales leaders coach instead of micro-managing. They hire for behaviors that are customer-focused. They set clear expectations and show sellers exactly how to reach those expectations. 


Early in my career, I was very fortunate to be a seller on a series of teams with leaders like that. So I experienced, first hand, what it meant to be enabled and ennobled in all the ways that mattered. What’s more, because of good hiring practices, I was surrounded by other high-achieving sellers and we learned from one another and challenged each other to stretch. 


Q:  What final message, tips or advice would you give to Sales Leaders and/or Business Leaders wanting to take their sales teams to the next level. 


Be strategic when you think about sales or sales management training. Avoid “training events” that are not sustainable and end up being nothing more than lost selling time. Work with a trainer/consultant who will customize the training to truly meet your needs AND offer you support in all aspects of sales development. Training is seldom the stand-alone answer, and it can be a huge waste of time and money to host training that doesn’t register.


Getting to the next level requires leadership. Sales managers should never opt out of sales training because if they do they are incapable of reinforcing what was learned. Likewise, senior sales managers must be engaged in sales manager training. A top-notch trainer/consultant will start by asking you about desired outcomes rather than length of time for training, budget or other tactical considerations.  


Q: Tell us about your book, what inspired you to write “DISCOVER Questions™” and what do you hope readers will gain from it?


My original research started because I was skeptical and dissatisfied with training programs that prescribed four types of questions, asked in a very formulaic manner. The one-size-fits-all approach suggested that you make sales by asking the same questions every time, with every buyer. My own experience told me that these models, which are widely known and successful in some industries and situations, were limited.


So I started with a curiosity about how many different purposes there might actually be for asking questions. Over the past 25 years, I collected notes from sales calls and wrote down the questions asked by sellers. Later, I began interviewing buyers to see how they felt about certain questions asked. And I tracked what happened in response to various types of questions. 


My conclusion is that there are eight types of questions. Each type represents a purpose for asking the question. I assigned a name to each type to express the purpose and came up with the apt acronym of DISCOVER. Over the past seven years, I have been field testing this approach in sales training programs I’ve offered. What became apparent to me and to people who use DISCOVER Questions™ is this – they create trust and connections with buyers while yielding actionable information for sellers. They’re efficient and effective in creating value for the buyer and in advancing the sale to a close.


The book was written in response to market demand. Lots of sellers asked for it during and after training. When my research shifted to test DISCOVER Questions™ with other groups, I found that there are equally compelling reasons for leaders, managers, trainers and coaches to understand the purposes of asking questions so they can be more intentional and strategic in their conversations. So this one for sellers is the first in a series of five books. 


{#/pub/images/DebCalvertNew.jpg}Deb Calvert, President, People First Productivity Solutions  

Deb Calvert, author of the DISCOVER QuestionsTM book series, has worked as a sales productivity specialist and sales researcher since 2000. She has worked with the newspaper industry for over 25 years as a consultant, a corporate director in Sales and Human Resources for a Fortune 500 company and as an Operations Director, Training Manager, and Sales Manager. Deb’s early career included a variety of inside, outside and major account sales positions. Over the past 10 years, Deb has worked with over 300 media companies to accelerate sales productivity. Deb hosts CONNECT! Online Radio for Professional Sellers where listeners ignite their selling power in just an hour.



{#/pub/images/danphoto.jpg}Written by Dan Woods, VP & COO ManagingAmericans.com

A graduate of West Point Military Academy, Dan has a strong background in business development, operations, project management and change management.  After serving five years in the Army Corps of Engineers, including worldwide assignments, he left the military and entered into the private sector.  With 10+ years in the Renewable Energy sector working for both startups and turnarounds for American, European and Asian conglomerates, he held positions as Director of Business Development and General Manager, as well as led multimillion-dollar projects as Project Director. Dan holds a B.S. in Economics, a Masters in Business Administration, and is certified as a Project Management Professional (PMP).


Do you have a question for Dan?  Please visit our Business Development Community, he will be happy to help: Ask an Expert


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