How to turn $5,000 into $8 Million with one simple question

Here’s the question:   “Why do you need this?”

This simple question helped a salesperson turn a $5,000 opportunity into an $8 Million contract. Too simple? Perhaps, but maybe you’ll think differently about it after I’ve shared the story with you.

I had just spent two days conducting sales training for the inside sales team of a global computer manufacturer. Their job was to support the field salespeople by providing customers with information, quotations, etc. Essentially, the field salespeople treated them as glorified Executive Assistants. In working with this group, however, I believed they could be much more of an asset to the company by taking a proactive role in the sales process than just simply responding to requests from the field. So one of the things we discussed during the training was qualifying, and what questions should be asked in order to ensure customers were investing in the right solutions.

When we finished the training, I headed out on to the sales floor to do some side-by-side coaching with individual salespeople. Round about 3:00 in the afternoon, I landed at Craig’s desk. Craig was a seasoned pro, with over 25 years of sales experience. I asked him what calls he had lined up for me to coach him on that day.

He told me he had just received a request from his field salesperson to provide a quote to a customer for a computer server.  Craig showed me the e-mail from the field person, and the gist of the message was:

This guy called me and left a voice mail. He wants a quote on a server, but didn’t give me any specifications. I haven’t been into this account since they do very little business with us, and I’ve never met him or spoken to him. Could you give him a call and find out what he needs, and send him a quote? Thanks.

I asked Craig how he intended to proceed, and he said:

“Normally I just follow orders from the field person, so I would just call the customer, get the specs, and send him a quote. End of story.”

“Well,” I replied. “Today isn’t a normal day is it? You have me sitting next to you observing everything you’re doing. So what are you going to do differently today that you wouldn’t normally do?”

“I guess I’m going to have to use some of the stuff you’ve been teaching us, aren’t I?”

“That would be nice,” I said. “What specifically are you going to do?”

“Well – I usually wouldn’t ask this, but since you stressed it, I guess I should ask what they are going to be using their new server for, instead of just blindly quoting it.”

“Sure – that would be good.”

I could see that, even with such a simple question, Craig was out of his comfort zone. He was used to following the orders of his field person, and was nervous about trying something new that the field person hadn’t sanctioned. I suggested we rehearse the call first, with me playing the customer.

We rehearsed how the call might go and how he would work the question into the dialogue. I also reminded Craig not to forget to engender cooperation from the customer by first conditioning him that he needed some answers to a few questions.

When I felt Craig was at least somewhat more comfortable, he made the actual call.

“Hi, this is Robert.”

“Robert – this is Craig calling from ……  I’m your Inside Account Manager, and I work with Andrea Jones, the field manager for your account. Andrea told me you had requested a quote for a server so I’m just calling to get some specs so I can send that out to you.”

“Okay….” and then Robert was off and running, relating his needed specs to Craig, which Craig duly started to note down. At this point, I knew if I didn’t intervene, Craig would slip into his established habit of just taking down the required specifications, and then writing up a quote. I gestured to Craig that he should ask the question. First, Craig remembered to preface the question with:

“Robert, to make sure you’re investing in the right solution, do you mind if I get your answers to a couple of quick questions?”

“Sure.” Robert said with a sigh. He was obviously just expecting to be able to give his specs, and get a quote.

“Do you mind if I ask why you need this server? What you will be using it for?”

There was a 2-second pause while Robert weighed up whether or not he should enter into this dialogue with Craig, and then he said: “Do you have half an hour to spare?”

“Absolutely!” Craig replied. He looked over at me with a quizzical look as we both wondered what this was about.

Robert then proceeded to tell Craig the reasons why he needed the server. He had joined his company just a month before. He had been hired to organize and complete a physical move of the company’s data centre from Chicago to San Francisco – a massive undertaking, of which the purchase of the server was merely the first step. Robert shared that the project was much larger in scope than he originally believed, and he admitted that he was feeling somewhat overwhelmed by it all.

“I really need some help here – can you help me?” he asked plaintively.

Long story short, Craig connected Robert with his Services Division, and Robert ended up contracting out the data centre move to Craig’s company – an $8 Million contract for the firm.

Craig would have been happy that day taking a $5,000 order for the server, and his field person would probably have been happy with that also. They both would have been blissfully ignorant of the massive opportunity that they would have missed out on if it hadn’t been for that one question:

“Why do you need this?”

Try it – it works!

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