From Chris Chalmers of Quova Inc:
"We sell a commodity product (geographic data) that is available from a variety of competitors and public sources. Recently, we lost a major account to a competitor, and based on our long-standing relationship with them, they consented to debrief us on what went wrong. Obviously we had an account management issue, and there had been a service problem or two. But the clincher was our competitor was perceived as "more helpful" and "more expert" because they were offering all sorts of unsolicited suggestions about how to use the product.
"That was a real surprise - Shouldn't the customer already know what they were going to do with the product? Otherwise they wouldn't have bought it, right? How much advice can you give when your product is a simple commodity?
"So we tried our competitor's approach in our next sales cycle. When the customer was talking about their perceived needs and uses of the product, we used to sit mildly and take notes. This time, we launched into a barrage of questions about the intended use our product, interspersed with short stories about how other customers were using it.
"What about this application? Have you ever considered this alternative? Here's how someone else in your situation is using it.." and so on. Instead of going into detail about the functionality of our application, which was simple and undifferentiated, we went into detail about the usage of our product, which was highly differentiated.
"Much to my surprise, it worked! Now WE were perceived as 'experts' and 'adding value' to the product - even though it was still a commodity that our competitor was selling for a lower price. Our coach really wanted to do business with us, and we were able to defend a higher price point and get our deal closed."
Thanks for sharing your story with my readers and me Chris. You and your sales team were smart to adopt your competition's tactics to beat them at their own game.
Aggressively asking questions is one of the most effective sales techniques you can use. Asking question uncovers the prospect's pains, wants and desires.
In Chris's words: "we launched into a barrage of questions about the intended use our product"
...instead of sitting mildly and taking notes while the prospect spoke about their needs.
Most salespeople don't go far enough with their questioning. Its not just about open versus closed questions. You need to take it further. Find out how they want to use your product in detail. Find out what excites them. Find out what they are afraid of. Find out the one or two important things that are driving them to make a purchase.
Asking questions offers the potential to increase rapport and build stronger bonds faster with your prospects. When you ask a person what is important to them, they feel more known and understood by you as they answer. This increases their receptivity giving you more opportunities to communicate in a way most effective for your prospect.
Story telling offers the power to transform your product from a nebulous idea into real vision for your prospects. Features certainly have little selling power. Benefits give you a bit more selling power than features do. It is story telling though that packs the big punch because it wraps the what, why, and how of your product all together into an entertaining package that holds their attention.
Stories don't have to be long. Very effective sales stories need only be a sentence or two. In Chris's case, the stories were short: "interspersed with short stories about how other customers were using it"
...because his sales team wanted to stay on their agenda of asking questions and finding all about the prospect's proposed use of their product. This was a very smart move because when you tell longer stories, you risk losing control of the sales call if you let the prospect ask you a lot of questions.
Stories position you and your company as capable experts. You imbue yourself with the success of your customers. Your prospect sees what is possible and believes that you can help them get what they want because you are discussing a customer who is getting their desired results.
Learn from Chris Chalmers' example. Incorporate more stories into your selling and improve your questioning techniques to find out what your prospects want, why they want it, and what they will do with it. Work on these skills and closing gets so easy its almost a nonevent.
© 1999-2004 Shamus Brown, All Rights Reserved.
Shamus Brown is a Professional Sales Coach and former high-tech sales pro who began his career selling for IBM. Shamus has written more than 50 articles on selling and is the creator of the popular Persuasive Selling Skills CD Audio Program. You can read more of Shamus Brown's sales tips at and you can learn more about his persuasive sales skills training at