The Only Decisive Question You Should Ask in Sales - Craft Your Content

The Only Decisive Question You Should Ask in Sales

Politicians and professional salespeople aren’t the only ones skilled in the art of selling.

Believe it or not, we are all selling something.

If you’ve ever recommended a movie or a restaurant, you were selling someone on something you believed to be a worthy investment of their time and money. If you ever went on an interview, you were selling yourself.

Start Off On The Right Foot

Let’s say you are in the luggage department at Macy’s department store, checking out the interior compartments of a sharp-looking Samsonite suitcase. A salesperson approaches you.

“M’am, do you want to buy this or not?”

It doesn’t matter where the conversation goes from this point forward, the damage is irreparable. The salesperson’s aggressive approach puts the customer on edge and they will immediately put their guard up.

The seller continues their spiel without even realizing they have as much of a chance selling that suitcase as they do selling a peanut butter cookie to someone with a peanut allergy.

Now, this is an over-the-top example, but it illustrates the necessity of starting off each and every conversation on the right foot.

Using the same scenario, let’s have the salesperson approach the customer again.

You are in the luggage department at Macy’s department store, checking out the interior compartments of a sharp-looking Samsonite suitcase. A salesperson approaches you.

“Hello. Are you looking for a suitcase to escape this brutally cold weather and jet off to a tropical island?”

With this approach, the customer’s guard immediately comes down. The salesperson is not viewed as a salesperson any longer, but someone who has formed a common bond with you. It doesn’t matter that the bond is over something trivial like the desire to escape the Midwest’s polar winter weather, it’s commonality.

There are three key qualities potential customers need to find in a goods or service provider in order to give that person their business.

First, the customer needs to feel as if they know the salesperson. To accomplish this, the salesperson’s first priority should be getting the customer to view his or herself as a real person instead of the stereotypical impassive, aggressive salesperson who is only interested in making a quick buck. So, how can the customer get to know you?

Everyone likes the sound of their own name, and it will immediately lay the foundation for a positive salesperson-customer relationship. Like the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People Dale Carnegie said, “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

What’s in a name? Everything. People associate someone using their name as a sign of respect and familiarity. Familiarity leads to trust. Trust leads to a positive salesperson-customer relationship.

Calling a customer ‘m’am’ or ‘sir,’ or in an email salutation using “Hey!”, will cause division between the salesperson and the customer. It will lead to thoughts of unfamiliarity and untrustworthiness.

The customer should also be able to recognize the salesperson as being “Cathy” or “John” instead of “salesperson”.

Find commonality, while setting a positive tone. The customer only needs one piece of information that strikes a chord to be able to feel the ‘commonality’ bond. Be it a positive or humorous remark about the weather, the news, one’s career, or parenthood. Note: make sure it is in fact a “positive or humorous” remark. You never want to start a conversation with a potential client or customer with a negative remark because that will set the tone for the rest of the conversation.

After the customer knows you, it is now up to them to determine if they like you. Yes, the second quality is likeability. Do you have anything in common? Start talking to your customers like you would talk to a friend from high school that you haven’t seen in awhile. This way of speaking lacks the forced awkward tone that often comes off as manipulative and phony. Ask questions and be genuinely interested in the answers. “Are you having a good weekend? What brought you into our store or this department today?”. The customer needs to see you as someone they know and like.

If you want the customer to fork over their hard earned cash, what are you going to give them in return? A friendly smile will only go so far, you need to give them something that’s of value to them. This will establish the third quality, trust. It doesn’t have to be an actual physical product, it can be sharing your expertise on a specific subject that your customer is interested in. It could be a recommendation for an amazing new restaurant. It could be an exclusive coupon code.

Let’s think back on the Samsonite salesperson. How did they exemplify the three key elements?

“Hello. Are you looking for a suitcase to escape this brutally cold weather and jet off to a tropical island?”

What does the customer learn from the salesperson’s very first sentence? The salesperson’s common dislike of the “brutally cold weather”. The customer recognizes the salesperson as being a ‘person’. Knowing the salesperson is a person just like them creates commonality, which in turn satisfies the first and second element, know and like.

The third element of trust is established by the salesperson’s use of lighthearted humor, “…jet off to a tropical island?”, as well as the shared commonality of weather preference. Since the customer knows and likes the salesperson, they have now started establishing trust. We can assume the trust will grow as the salesperson builds rapport and provides the customer with value.

It’s Not About You

As you start to build rapport, remember that this should be a conversation, not a sales pitch. It’s about the customer’s needs, not yours. How do you know what their needs are? Be an active listener. When you are already thinking about the next thing you’re going to say while the other person is talking, you’re doing what’s known as passive listening. By staying engaged in the conversation, asking questions and listening to the answers, you will be able to grasp the customer’s needs. The customer will only reveal their needs if you ask the right questions.

What are the right questions? The short answer is that they vary based on the customer. Listening and observing the customer’s body language will guide you towards the right questions. In general, while you are building rapport and developing the key elements—‘know, like, trust’—you should continue asking open-ended questions that can’t be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. This keeps the conversation from shutting down.

Written Words: Email

You can adapt sales tactics that are used in person-to-person sales to the written word. When a customer initiates communication either via your business website or email, it’s important to remember that voice inflection is absent and will be assumed by whomever is reading the email correspondence. There are a few basic things you should keep in mind when communicating with a customer.

Professional Email Etiquette 101

  • DO use a proper salutation and address the customer by name. Example: Dear Mrs. Jones or Hello Mrs. Jones
  • DO use a professional email address. Example: [email protected] or [email protected]
  • DO use an appropriate subject line. If the body of your email contains nothing related to the subject line, don’t use it!
  • DON’T use a deceptive subject line. There is nothing that says ‘desperate salesperson’ more than a deliberately misleading subject line. The only customer you might attract with this tactic is the same customer that would be attracted to a ‘We have money in our Nigerian bank account that we need your help with…”. Is that the type of client you want to attract?
  • DON’T use excessive exclamation points, it will be assumed that you are yelling!!!

The difference between selling in person and selling over email is that your customer is much more at ease with saying the word “No!”, stopping communication altogether, or just directing your emails to the “Junk” folder.

Be mindful of your word choice and make sure you establish all three key elements, “know, like, trust” before attempting to close a sale. Providing value and building a relationship with your customer is still just as important over email as it is in-person.

Set yourself apart by showcasing an area of your business that’s really innovative, where you know you really shine.

Written Words: Content

Providing kick-ass content is a great way stand out from the competition. A great website should have content that is relevant to what led you to it in the first place. If you performed a Google search for ‘Ferrari’ and clicked on a link that had a description about Ferraris, you would assume the website would be about Ferraris.

Say, instead, after clicking on the link, you are taken to a website to purchase vitamin supplements. Are you going to stick around and shop for vitamin supplements? Probably not. You would probably be annoyed and return to the search results. The website selling vitamin supplements is deceptive and an example of a bad website.

This type of deceptive marketing has cost the brand any future sales they might have had with that customer. The customer may now perceive that particular brand of vitamin supplements as being untrustworthy.

One of key the ways trust is built is by providing the customer with something of value to them. You need to establish yourself as an expert in whatever field you are in and relay educational or entertaining information to your audience. You do this with the knowledge that your audience will share content they find useful to their circle of influence. Thus, by being relevant and useful, you will grow your network of potential customers.

Written Words: Social Media

The best way to grow your network is to have a presence on social media. People want to buy from people they know and like, so make sure you have photographs or posts that show who you are. Don’t be afraid to inject personality into your brand.

If every other Facebook post is about how awesome your business is, you are going to get old and annoying really fast. If your audience stops clicking on your posts, your posts will eventually end up way down at the bottom of their newsfeed, or they will just un-follow your posts.

In order to have an audience that comes to know, like, and trust you, The Rule of Thirds is a strategy that you can start using today. Here is a general overview of how to use The Rule of Thirds:

  • One-third of your content should be articles/blog posts that are written by other experts in your industry.
  • One-third of your content should be about your personal brand and business.
  • One-third of your content should be sharing customer posts on Facebook or retweeting customer tweets. It can also be addressing and responding to customer questions.


“Differentiation is the key to success in a hyper-competitive world, and commoditization is the enemy.” –Larry Myler, Author of Indispensable by Monday

Differentiating yourself in the marketplace is important. If a customer asks whether you are different or better than a competitor, which should you say?

Always say: Different.

You want to be seen as different because that makes you special. People would much rather buy special over better. Think of brands like Toms, they are a perfect example of using social entrepreneurship to stand out from the uber-competitive shoe industry. They don’t say they’re better than Keds or Clarks. They’re different, and different sells. To achieve their uniqueness, they created an entirely new business model called “One-for-One”. For every pair of shoes sold, they donate a pair to someone in a poverty stricken area.

Now, you don’t have to go and create an entirely new business model to differentiate yourself. Focus on the positive attributes of your business. Perhaps you have an exemplary customer service department.

In the classic film, Miracle on 34th Street, Macy’s department store knocked the socks off their competitor, Gimbels department store, by providing outstanding customer service. Macy’s had their customer service representatives searching through catalogs and sales flyers to find the best deals for their customers, even if that meant losing a sale to their competitors. They knew that gaining that customer’s trust and loyalty was worth far more than losing that one sale. That customer would become a lifelong customer of Macy’s.

First Comes Value, Then Comes The Sale

L.L. Bean is well-known for the tremendous value they have provided customers over the years, and we’re not just talking about great shoes or apparel. There are hundreds of stories of customers talking to a member of the L.L. Bean customer support team and experiencing customer service that goes above and beyond.

There was a customer that was unhappy with the fit of several pairs of L.L. Bean shoes. After the customer complained to a customer service representative, the representative apologized to the customer for the unfortunate experience she had with the shoes. In addition to issuing a full refund, the representative also suggested she try another online retailer that offered an impressive selection of customizable fit shoes. She was pleasantly surprised that the representative didn’t try any hard-sell tactics or convince her to try another pair of L.L. Bean shoes. She was so happy that she spread the word of this incident, which caused her friends and family to bring their business to L.L.Bean.

L.L. Bean provided value to the customer by recommending a store that would carry better shoes for her. In return, the customer felt that L.L. Bean was a company that she knew, liked, and trusted. She will be bringing them her business along with the business of friends and family that hear the altruistic story.

Reverse Technique

Chances are this technique was used on you by your parents, or perhaps you use it on your children.

If a young child is complaining about having to eat their dinner, all that has to be done is to tell the child in an overly-dramatic fashion that they are not allowed to eat another bite of their dinner. They simply can’t have it. They’re too little to eat such a big dinner and you just can’t let them eat because they will only grow even bigger!

What will the child do? In many cases, the child will want to eat their dinner.

This technique not only works on young children, it works on adults too. To convince an adult to do something you want them to do–be it buy something or go to a certain restaurant–you must be much more subtle than when using the technique on a young child. Ultimately, though, it will still have the same impact and end result.

Key phrases and words like ‘limited time offer’ and ‘waitlist’ are examples of this technique in action. If a customer is on the fence about purchasing something and the salesperson stresses that there is a growing waitlist to get it, they are going to feel a sense of urgency and want it even more.

Mike Michalowicz,American entrepreneur and author of the entrepreneur’s must-read The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur, has discussed how opposition between buyer and seller can actually work to your advantage.

When a customer feels like they are being ‘sold’ to, it is human nature to want to push back and resist. This is called natural opposition, or in sales, it’s known as the reverse technique. People dislike being told to do something. That’s something that goes all the way back to our childhood. We’re born to want independence and to discover things for ourselves.

An example of using natural opposition to your advantage would be something like a salesperson talking to a customer about purchasing a television set:

Salesperson: “This limited edition, state-of-the-art television set is on sale today only… there are so many features and add-ons with it. You would need more time to think it over, wouldn’t you?”

In this example, the customer is being told he would need more time to think over the purchase; however, he opposes this and instead says something like: “No, I don’t need more time. I’ve done my research and this is the television I want to buy.”

Ladies and gentlemen, the reverse technique.

The Truth Will Set You Free

Speak the truth! The truth will set you free. It will also net you higher sales.

There is no such thing as perfect, so don’t make outrageous claims. If you dupe your customers, they will no longer be your customers because you will have lost the trust factor. Your customers will feel deceived and you will be discredited in their eyes.

Being honest and having integrity are far more important for long-term success. Misrepresenting something in order to make a one-time sale is not only unethical, it’s a really stupid business move.

Don’t Skip Third Base

In baseball, to score a home-run, the player must hit the ball and then run from first base to second base, and then third base to home plate. The player must hit every base in consecutive order for it to count as a home-run. When building a relationship with a customer you do not start the conversation going from first base to second base and then suddenly, without warning, make a mad dash for home plate without stopping to hit third base.

In sales, you don’t start off building up a rapport with your customer and then at the very first sign of a forthcoming sale—before they know, like, or trust you— rush the customer over to the cash register. You must go through all three key elements. If you were to just rush the customer over to the cash register, they would get nervous and run the other way (e.g., natural opposition). Many sales are lost when a salesperson gets so excited about the approaching sale that they end up not establishing the customer’s trust before they attempt to close, which ultimately causes the salesperson to lose the sale.

The 3 Yes’s Approach

Building rapport and keeping the dialogue going are important. The psychology behind the “3 Yes’s” approach is that–if you get someone to say yes three times in a row–they are more likely to say yes to the next question. Saying yes becomes a habitual response. They get into a pattern and stick with it because it has become comfortable and easier to say ‘yes’ than to say ‘no’.

Everyone Is Selling Something to Someone

Everyone is selling something to someone. Be it a politician selling their persona to the public, someone selling a compromise to their spouse, a child selling his teacher on getting out of detention. You don’t have to be an actual salesperson to sell, and you don’t have to be an actual salesperson to be good at selling.

You do need to be good at relationships, because people buy from those they know, like, and trust.

By providing value either with fresh educational or entertaining content on your website, or by being recognized as an expert in your field and giving great advice, you are continuing to build and nurture customer relationships.

About the Author Amber Van Karsen

Amber Van Karsen is a freelance writer. She has an impressive collection of many leather-bound books and her house smells of rich mahogany.