Can you sell me this pen? The classic sales interview question. Give the interviewee a pen or paper cup or other mundane object from the desk and ask them to sell it to you. If the person responds with the features and benefits and use cases of the pen, you thank them and keep moving. If the person begins with a question such as, “How long have you been in the market for a pen?” you’ve got a finalist. Is that really the acid test of who to hire? I’d argue, yes.

Even with all the access to sales best practice readily available today, reps continue to talk too much and ask too few questions. It causes them to lengthen their sales cycle, misread buying signs, and altogether lose sales. When a rep finishes a sales conversation without drawing out the customer’s need, budget, purchase criteria and timeline, there is no way to accurately measure interest or forecast that opportunity. In short, without asking the right open-ended questions, we are not much better at selling a prospect than a videotape.

Is there a hack to fix this problem on your team or if you’re a rep, on your own? Yes, many, but today’s post is about one of the simplest strategies to get reps to check themselves in the middle of conversations that are too one-sided. Let’s take a page out of our journalist friends’ book and employ the so called Five W’s – Who, What, When, Where, Why and it makes six but they throw in How. Journalists use this checklist to gather all the facts about a news story. Why not use them to gather all the facts about an opportunity?

First, let me prove that this method works. Let’s say you just got off the phone with a friend. If I asked you to fill out a form about the friend based on that conversation you might get lucky and be able to fill some of it out. But if I had warned you in advance and shown you the quiz, you’d probably be more successful in asking the right questions to be able to answer it. “There will be a quiz later,” are the six most powerful words in education, are they not?

How you’ll begin is for each of your pipeline stages, create a target list of Who, What, When, Where, Why and How questions. Ask your reps to be prepared to discuss the answers to these questions with you, and/or record them in your CRM.

For example, “Approval Stage” is a commonly used pipeline stage we use when the prospect claims to want our solution and is now seeking approval from a supervisor, board, committee, or other group. This is a late and critical stage of B2E sales. But when you think about it, I bet you’ll realize how rarely you or your reps have bothered to collect the specifics on the approval process. If you had to answer these questions, you would probably remember to get a lot more detail:

WHOWho is approving this purchase?

WHATWhat precisely is the approval process?

WHENWhen are you seeking approval and when is a response expected?

WHEREWhere is the presentation or board meeting where the prospect will be pitching?

WHYWhy would the purchase be approved or not approved?

HOWWhat does the prospect plan to say, or will there be a written communique?

Obviously, if you know these specifics, or determine your prospect doesn’t really have a plan to get approval, you have a much better chance of accurately forecasting and closing this opportunity. Let’s try another stage.

Qualified Lead – the vaguest stage of all!

WHO – Who at the school/district do they believe has a need for our solution?

WHAT – What specific requirements do they have in mind as they begin their search?

WHEN – When would they need to implement?

WHERE – Where and with what equipment will our service be accessed?

WHY – Why did they take my call/contact us?

HOW — How will the prospect judge success of their investment?

Getting the picture? Can your reps answer to this level of detail about ANY opportunity in their pipelines right now? (Don’t answer that!) You can customize the Five W’s for your own stages and solution, and perhaps you’ll get in the hang of recording them routinely. Giving reps a Five W’s quiz to be answered later shifts their focus from “making a sale” to “securing information.” And if they have that second goal as their primary objective when meeting with a prospect, no doubt they’ll make more sales!

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