Medical device sales people are often coached to “talk a little bit less and get better at asking questions.” In most cases this is a solid piece of coaching advice. Most sales people talk too much, listen too little and don’t ask enough questions.
The problem is “doing a better job at asking questions”, is easy to say, but not so easy to do. There are many traps on the road to getting better. Here are eight we too often see.
1. Not establishing why you’re asking questions – If the customer doesn’t know why you’re asking questions, bad things tend to happen. So, before the call, think about the purpose of the meeting and formulate two or three questions to help guide the conversation.
At the start of the call, share the call purpose from your perspective, ask the customer to build on that call purpose, and then request permission to ask questions. During the call you also can use questions to drill down on a topic, such as: Let me just stop here and ask a few questions to get a better idea about … or even to change topics. Questions also can periodically be used to check that you are continuing to pursue a topic of mutual interest.
2. Asking too many questions – One of the downsides of questioning is the potential for the conversation to turn into an interrogation or to be perceived as manipulative by the overuse or misuse of questions. The culprit is usually poor pre-call planning. Unfortunately, the sales person usually is intent on asking the pre-planned questions and regardless of what happens during the call, those questions are asked! The result is bombarding the customer with “20 questions” vs. building a business conversation with a natural flow to it.
3. Asking multiple questions – Often too many questions are strung together, so the sales person really is asking multiple questions at once. Here’s an example: “You mentioned you’re concerned bundling products. What is your primary concern? Have you had problems with bundling before? Why did it happen?” Three good questions – but when posed in rapid succession, which question will the customer answer? Research tells us in most cases it’s the last one. So, the sales person will learn why the bundling problems happened, but you may never know what the bundling problem actually was and what the customer’s current concerns are about bundling.
4. Providing the answer for the customer – Leveraging knowledge and insights is a hallmark of consultative selling. However, in an effort to move the call along or, possibly, to appear knowledgeable, sales people sometimes both ask and answer questions during calls. This tends to happen when the time available for the call is tight, yet the sales person wants to go through the entire pre-planned agenda rather than focusing only on one or two key issues that time allows. The trap is the customer will usually have a negative reaction and you might not even know it until you try and schedule the next call.
5. Assuming the answer – Sales people have been known to assume the answer to a question based on experiences with other customers. The trap is an easy one to fall into because sales people who focus on a particular industry, like medical devices, do have extensive expertise acquired from working with multiple customers. However, this is one of those scenarios where even if you are right you are probably wrong. Doesn’t every medical sales person have many a horror story where they skipped validating and ended up making terrible assumptions?
6. Not reading the situation – We work with many medical device companies, several of whom support surgeons. Sales people sometimes are so eager just to get an opportunity to talk with a surgeon that they don’t read the situation. Following a difficult procedure or a bad patient outcome is not the time for a call let alone asking a bunch of questions. Sometimes you don’t know that a difficult situation has occurred or when customers have other things prominently on their radar. The answer is – always confirm that it is a good time.
7. Failing to avoid the temptation to talk too soon. A common call flow is the sales person starts the conversation asking some thoughtful questions and then the sales person starts to provide information related to the customer’s response. Equally often this is probably a trap since the definition of the problem is incomplete and/or all the correlated issues are yet to be surfaced.
An alternative approach is to ask second and third order follow-up questions to better understand the scope of the problem as the customer sees it and to explore what the possible strategic, operational, and financial ripple effects might be. This approach not only helps the sales person to better understand the problem but also often helps the customer discover new insight. A much better foundation is thereby established for talking about a solution.
Although notional, an easy rule of thumb is: customer interactions usually work better if the customer is talking about 70% of the time and the sales person is talking 30%. If the percentage split looks something like that, you have probably avoided the mistakes of talking too soon and/or talking too much. And subscribing to this motto – ask, listen, then talk – helps, too.
8. Lacking perspective on sensitive information – Don’t put the customer in an uncomfortable situation by asking questions that shouldn’t be asked. We all know that HIPPA, for example, has had an impact on the clinical information available to medical sales people.
To be a top performer in medical sales some skills need to mastered – asking questions is one of them. A good first step is to avoid traps that are, once you know them, easily avoidable.
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©2011 Sales Horizons™, LLC