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Discover Exactly What Your Sales Prospect Wants in the Negotiation Process 

By John Patrick Dolan

Negotiation in sales can be a tricky process when salespeople don’t know the true needs of their prospects. But the most successful sales and business professionals know how to ask questions that determine what their prospective clients really want. They use questions to open up communications and encourage prospects to share information.

However, using questions to uncover information and to break down barriers at the negotiating table requires more than just asking questions as you think of them. If you ask the right question, you can get the information you need to close the deal. But ask the wrong question, and you risk offending your prospect and losing the sale. Essentially, you must know how to ask effective questions that produce the right response.

Formulating effective questions requires forethought and skill. So use the following seven guidelines for effective questioning techniques the next time you sit down at the bargaining table with a potential client:

1. Plan Your Questions Ahead of Time: Before starting the negotiations, figure out exactly what key issues you’ll be negotiating. Researching the prospect you’re negotiating with, his or her organization, and background relative to the situation enables you to formulate the right questions to get more information.

Find out what type of person the prospect is, whether he or she is an experienced negotiator, and what’s at stake for the other party in the deal. The more you know, the more effective your questions will be. So plan in advance the kinds of questions likely to produce the most information, and the kinds of questions with the most potential for moving you and your prospect toward a solution.

2. Ask Permission to Ask Questions: Questions can sometimes put people on the defensive. To avoid this situation, choose words and phrases that make your prospects feel like they are being interviewed, rather than interrogated. The last thing you want your prospects to feel is that they’re under interrogation. So use care in your word choices and allow them to open up and let the information flow.

Start by saying, “So that I can understand where you’re coming from and how we might work more closely together, it would help me if I asked a few question. Is that okay with you?”

Once you have their permission, be sure to ask your questions gently. Instead of saying, “Why do you insist on those terms?” try saying, “So I can better understand your position, can you please explain to me why those terms are so important to you?”

3. Begin with Broad, Simple Questions and Progress to Questions with More Depth: Broad questions prevent your prospects from feeling pinned down, so start with open-ended inquiries. For example, ask them about their main goal for the negotiation. This method will allow the prospects to answer in general terms and to keep their negotiation strategy a secret. Then as you and the other party become more comfortable, move on to narrower, more direct questions.

Direct questions give you specific information, such as facts and figures. “How much to you expect to pay for this service?” is an example of a direct question.

Then as you uncover the facts, you can gradually progress to positioning and strategic questions, such as, “What will it take for you to agree to our offer?” Strategic questions help everyone focus on working out an acceptable agreement.

4. Make Your Questions Simple: Ask questions that are easy to answer. In other words, don’t ask questions that may make your prospect uncomfortable. So avoid personal questions, unless the answer is absolutely vital to your negotiations. For example, a person’s salary is personal information, but a real estate agent has a valid reason for asking prospects to reveal how much they make.

Also, if someone asks you a question that you don’t know how to answer, admit it. Learn how to say, “I don’t know.” But always offer to find out the answer, and promise to get back with them.

5. Once You’ve Asked a Question, Take Time to Listen: Although listening seems like an obvious part of the question and answer system, the practice is often overlooked. Many times, when salespeople get caught up in the negotiation process, they focus on what they want to ask prospects next, rather than listen attentively to their responses.

If you want to get information from your prospects, you must listen to what they say. Don’t plan your second question until they’ve answered the first. Be quiet, concentrate on their responses, and consider how their statements affect the negotiations.

6. Use Questions to Give Information: To avoid sounding pushy or overbearing, communicate important information by turning your statements into questions. For example, “Did you know our company out-sold our closest competitors by 125 percent last year?” sounds friendlier than just stating numbers and facts.

Also, statements in the form of questions encourage your prospects to respond with more information. For example, your prospect may respond, “Yes, we were impressed with your company’s record of consistently outperforming its competitors. The last company we dealt with seemed to struggle to keep up, which caused many problems.” This response tells you that they are aware of your reputation, and your stability is important to them.

7. Use Questions to Clarify: Experienced negotiators always ask enough questions to ensure that all parties understand all the details of the agreement, because many times two parties will agree, but not on the same terms. For example, if someone agrees to pay on the first, what do they mean? They may mean that they will pay on the first of the month, but which month? Or they may mean they will pay on the first delivery, or the first chance they get.

This may sound nit-picky, but you should always cover every detail of the agreement terms to avoid confusion. Keep asking questions until you and your prospect mean the same things by the terms you use.

The Benefits of Effective Questions: Information is the key to better negotiations, and effective question-asking techniques allow you to collect more information from your prospective clients. The right questions can open up communication lines and encourage conversations that increase the level of trust your prospect has in you and the product or service you sell.

When you use these seven guidelines for effective questioning, you and your prospect can move beyond your individual positions, focus on ways to pool your strengths, and form mutually beneficial agreements. And mutually beneficial agreements mean more clients, more sales, and more money for you and your company.

Read other articles and learn more about John Patrick Dolan.

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