Asking the Tough Questions

In the movie “Three Men and a Baby” — the story of three bachelors suddenly finding themselves with a baby to care for — there is a scene where two of the men return from an evening out to find their friend, played by Tom Selleck, reading the baby to sleep. When one of them suddenly realizes Selleck is reading the sports page, he exclaims “How can you read the sports page to a baby?!” Calmly, Selleck replies, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it,” then continues to read the rest of the sports page to the baby in the sweetest sing-song tone of voice.

This response applies to selling as well. How you say something is just as important as what it is you are saying. Too often during practice exercises in my Strategic Probing programs, I see reps — at all experience levels — asking key, but sensitive, questions poorly, or worse, not asking these questions at all. Examples of such key, sensitive questions include:

  • Who really makes the decisions?

  • What do you really think of my web site?
  • Why were we really knocked off the plan last year?
  • How much money do you really have?
  • How deep in the category are you really going?
  • What’s really going on in this account?
  • How much do you really know about your account’s business?
  • How much of a risk taker are you really?
  • How much will you really fight for my web site?
  • What’s the real objection to advertising with us?

The bottom line: You need the answers to these questions to win business. Without them, you’re competing at a serious information disadvantage. What’s the solution?

“Cushion” Your Question

A “cushion” is a phrase that precedes the tough or sensitive question. The cushion phrase is very conversational and does not make the buyer feel pressured. Rather, it makes the buyer feel important and comfortable about answering the question. It is spoken, not in Selleck’s sweet sing-song tone, but with a tone of genuine curiosity for the buyer’s answer and with respect for that individual. Most important, cushions help reps feel more comfortable asking these questions.

Cushions can be used with open or closed questions. Below are several examples. The cushions are identified in italics. They are then followed by the question.

  1. Every agency (media department, account, ad director, brand manager, etc.) works differently (has its/his or her own special needs, own priorities, preferences, etc.). Tell me (Help me understand) what criteria will be used here in this agency (department, company, etc.) to select online media for your new campaign?

  2. No two planners view XYZ web site (set priorities, decide, work with their clients) the same way. Where do you rank our site on your plan? (What are your priorities?)
  3. You know the situation (the client, the budgets, the marketing strategy) best. What could knock us off the list? (Will you be spending at the same levels you did last year? Are there opportunistic funds for sponsorships?)
  4. I could help you better if I understood how you decided last year’s list. Why weren’t we considered? (What are your priorities?)

Special Situations

  1. In cases where you are looking to test or float some ideas but don’t quite know how to couch the question, you might say:

    “We’re seeing a lot of interest in sponsorships (streaming, database marketing, etc.). To what extent do you see interest in that for yourself?” (Who on the account is interested in things like that?)

  2. If you’re feeling very intimidated, try:

    “I could be out of line here, but let me ask you, Why would you use web sites A, B, and C and miss the….. on our site?” (If the buyer feels you are out of line and says so, the easy reply is a simple “Sorry” or a humorous answer, depending on your personal style. If the buyer does not give an answer, he or she will certainly appreciate your courtesy, which can only help the overall relationship.)

  3. You may represent a web site that arouses strong feelings in people because of its content (for example, political) and/or because of your target audience (for example, children). A media planner may not comfortably announce his or her bias or ignorance. However, it is imperative that you get a true reading of the situation on that account. Try:

    “Jack, it sometimes happens that while an agency can see the value of my web site, we get shot down because of client prejudices, prior past experience, personal dislike of the content, etc. To what extent is that true here?”

Summary: Information Is Power

Complete and critical information starts a positive sales chain reaction. Without it, it’s hard to present the right story, anticipate the right objections, and close the business. If you are not currently at ease getting sensitive information, try cushions. They’re easy to use, they come across as natural conversation so the buyer doesn’t feel like he or she is being interrogated, and they are comfortable for both you and your advertiser.

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