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!

Customers don’t want to hear: “I don’t know….”

Here’s a technique to help you deal more effectively with customer enquiries – especially from upset customers.

After facilitating a Customer Service Excellence program for the post-sales technical support team of a major computer manufacturer, I was conducting side-by-side phone coaching with one of the support technicians (we’ll call him John – names have been changed to protect the innocent!). John received a call from a customer who was obviously on a speaker phone. The following dialogue took place:

“This is John – how may I help you today?”

“Yeah – we’d like to know if such-and-such can be used with a whatsit?”

“Hmm. I don’t know, but if you’ll give me a couple of minutes I think I know where to find the answer. Do you mind holding?”

With a somewhat cynical tone, the customer replied: “No – I guess not.”

John started to take his headphones off so he could go and find the answer. As he did that, we realized he had forgotten to actually place the customer on hold. The customer didn’t know they weren’t on hold either, and were oblivious to the fact that John could still hear them.  We heard the following exchange between the customer and another person in his office:

“Oh great – this guy doesn’t know (bleeping) squat.”

“Wonderful. Bleep, bleep.”

John looked at me and mouthed: “What should I do?”

“Put them on hold.” I mouthed back.

John did so, and then asked me how to proceed. I told him this was the perfect situation to show some empathy:

Ignore their remarks – it’s not personal. They’re obviously upset and need an answer as soon as possible. Do you know where to find the answer?”

“I think so.”

“Okay – just go and get it as quickly as you can and come back and give it to them.”

John was gone about 45 seconds, and came back waving a piece of paper with the answer on it. After re-connecting with the customer, he said:

“Okay – I’m back. You were right. I didn’t know squat about this before. But I do now and I have your answer.”  With that, he paused. (Note: This is not the kind of behaviour we teach in our programs, but given the circumstances, I thought this was a novel and somewhat amusing way of dealing with the situation.)

After a couple of seconds of stunned silence on the other end, the customer sheepishly asked:

“Do you think we could have it, please?”

“Of course,” John replied, and then proceeded to relay the answer to the customer. The customer then said:

“Thank you very much. Obviously you overheard us talking, and we’re sorry we were rude. We appreciate the help.”

“No problem – I was glad to help. Let me give you my direct line in case you have any other questions…..”

And with that, the call concluded.

There are a couple of lessons to be learned here:

1. Customers can get upset when they don’t receive instant answers to their questions. That doesn’t excuse their rudeness, but we need to show empathy towards customers who have contacted us to solve a problem. Don’t take their anger personally (unless of course you caused the problem in the first place!). If necessary, use the ANGRY process described in a previous blog to defuse customer anger.

2. Customers don’t want to hear “I don’t know….”  They are coming to us for our expertise, not to hear that we don’t know the answer to their problem.  Saying: “I don’t know…” not only undermines your credibility, but also, if they are already angry, it is only likely to exasperate the situation, and elevate that anger.

You do, of course, need to be honest with customers. However, as my lawyer once told me, you should never lie, but there are a hundred ways of telling the truth. An alternative to the “I don’t know…” approach is to let the customer know that you will help them and provide the right answer, even if it takes a little time. We have found the following to be extremely effective in helping customers stay calm while explaining they have to wait for their answer:

“I want to make sure you’re getting the right information. Can you give me just two minutes to double check that, and I’ll be right back with your answer?”

Phrasing it this way does not undermine your credibility, and the customer is re-assured that they are going to get the right information. They are less likely to be angry, and will be more tolerant of being placed on hold to wait for their answer. Try it – it works!

Selling on purpose – Part 2: Forget about yourself completely

Not long after we founded Delaine Consulting, I made a sales call on the CEO of a mid-sized company based just outside of Montreal. To get to the meeting, I flew into Dorval airport and then took a 45-minute cab ride to the prospective client’s office. When I say a cab ride, it was actually one of the most terrifying journeys of my life. Montreal drivers have something of a, shall we say, reckless reputation, but this cab driver was something else! Speeding, changing lanes at whim, it was as if he didn’t care if we got there safely or not – he just wanted to get there as quickly as possible. I braced myself in the seat, and hung on for dear life. I was traumatized by the time we arrived.

After the CEO and I introduced ourselves and were settled in his office, he asked me how the journey was. I started to regale him with the story of my cab ride. After a few minutes, I noticed that his eyes had started to glaze over and he was shifting in his chair. He may have been genuinely interested in my journey when he asked the question, but 10 minutes into the story, his interest was definitely on the wane! Realizing this, and hoping I hadn’t blown the opportunity, I transitioned quickly into my prepared opening statement in order to focus us on business. His attention back on me, the call went well from there, and he became a client.

I’ll never know if I would have blown the sale if I had continued blathering, but I do know this incident taught me a couple of valuable lessons. I already knew the importance of empathy in selling, and how really understanding the customer and their needs helps me provide truly appropriate solutions. What I learned that day though, was that when I am talking, I’m not listening. Zig Ziglar once said that selling is not telling, selling is asking the right questions. I’ll modify that by saying that selling is not telling, selling is asking the right questions, and then listening to the answers. And since listening is one of the cornerstones of empathy, if you’re not listening with all your mental acuity, you cannot effectively be building empathy, and that is going to hurt your selling success.

The other lesson I learned that day was to forget about myself completely, and focus my attention entirely on the customer. It is quite natural, of course, to provide an answer when someone asks you a question. And we do like talking about ourselves – it is our favourite subject. However, in a sales situation, when we focus on ourselves and not on the prospect, we run a real risk of leaving the prospect feeling like we really don’t have their best interests at heart. After all, the purpose of qualifying in sales is to gain as much of an understanding of them and their situation as possible. In other words, the customer should be the focus of the dialogue, not the salesperson.

When you focus on the customer, it allows you to build a complete understanding of their situation. You will empathize so deeply with their concerns and problems that you will be able to provide solutions that far outweigh the competition in terms of their value. It may not win you every sale (I don’t know anything that works 100% of the time), but forgetting about yourself completely will certainly make it harder for customers to buy from your competition, and easier to buy from you.

Look for more ways that you can use empathy to help you sell on purpose instead of by accident in future blogs.

Applying empathy to “defuse” angry customers

When we first established Delaine Consulting, it occurred to me that the word Delaine had seven letters in it. This was perfect for a 1-800- type toll-free line, so I decided to look into it and set one up. The first thing I had to do was to see if the number was available. I decided to call the phone company to enquire as to the availability of the number. I should have done the smart thing and just dialed 1-800-DELAINE to see if anybody answered, but instead I called the phone company. Given what transpired, this initially seemed like a huge mistake, but what came out of it was an excellent technique for defusing angry customers. I have since shared this with thousands of Customer Service Representatives who have used it to help them successfully resolve customer issues and enhance customer satisfaction.

Back in those days, companies still had live telephone receptionists to field incoming calls. I asked the receptionist to connect me with someone who could tell me if a particular 1-800 number was available for use. After being told I would be transferred to the appropriate department, there was a click and a pause before someone picked up the call.

“Yes – can I help you?”

“Good Morning. I wonder if you could tell me if 1-800-DELAINE is an available number, please?”

“Hmm – I don’t know why they put you through to me. That’s not our department. Hold on – I’ll transfer you.” Before I could say anything else, there was a click and I was en route to another department.

“Good Morning. I wonder if you could tell me if 1-800-DELAINE is available as a number?” I asked again of the new person who picked up. This was met with basically the same answer as the first time, and before I knew it I was on hold waiting for another department to answer.

When the next person picked up, we went through exactly the same routine. Lo and behold, the end result was yet another transfer. And, just like the man in Monty Python’s “Do you play cricket” sketch who kept getting hit repeatedly in the head with a cricket ball: Of course, I was getting used to it by then. But that didn’t make it any less frustrating, and I was becoming angrier by the second. I remembered a study by Anderson Consulting of what happens to a customer’s frame of mind when they are transferred multiple times in order to get an issue resolved. They found that customer satisfaction is diminished by 20% with each transfer. Since I had now been transferred four times, my customer satisfaction was rapidly approaching zero!

And then I reached Betty.

“This is Betty, how can I help you today?”


“Oh my dear, you sound so upset.”


“Oh my goodness! No wonder you’re upset. I don’t blame you for being angry – I would be too! Why don’t you tell me what you want to know and I’ll see what I can do to help you – and I promise I won’t transfer you.”

Well – that sure knocked the fight out of me. How can you argue with someone who’s validating how you are feeling and offering to help? I immediately began to calm down and started to feel more rational again.

“Betty – I’m just trying to find out if a 1-800 number is available,” I sighed.

“Is that all? And they got you all upset over that? I’m so sorry we made you feel that way. What’s the number you’re looking for?”

I repeated the number and then Betty said: “1-800-DELAINE? Okay, let me find out. Actually, I will have to put you on hold first. You’re going to laugh – or maybe not – but that’s not my department. But I’m not going to transfer you and I will get an answer for you.”

I didn’t actually laugh, but I did feel a whole lot better, and I at last had confidence I was going to get an answer one way or the other. About a minute later Betty was back.

“After all that, I have to tell you the number has already been taken. I’m so sorry about that. Is there another number you’d like me to check?”

There wasn’t, so I thanked Betty for her help, and was about to hang up when she said:

“Listen. Let me give you my direct number. If you ever have to call us again for anything, you make sure you call me, and I’ll make sure you get the help you need.”

With that we said our goodbyes. I never did get a 1-800 number, and I didn’t have any reason to call the phone company again, but if I did, you can be sure I would have called Betty!

The next time you are dealing with an emotional customer, take a leaf out of Betty’s book and implement her process for defusing the anger:

Empathize with the customer and show you understand how they feel.

Validate their emotion to calm the customer, and show them that you are their ally not their enemy.

Apologize – not for the problem, but for the fact that the company made you feel that way.

Take personal command of the situation and do everything you can to ensure the issue is resolved.

Give them your contact information in case they need to be in touch again.

Using this process you will ensure that you defuse customer anger so that you can resolve their problem, while actually boosting customer satisfaction and ensuring long term loyalty. Try it – it works!

Applying empathy to sell on purpose instead of by accident

Part 1 – Pre-call research

In 1977, I applied for a job as a salesperson with a company supplying equipment and chemicals to researchers in the health sciences field. I had some trepidation about being in sales, but in one of my interviews with my prospective manager, I’d asked him what kind of training I would receive. “Oh – don’t worry, you’ll get full training,” he told me. So I accepted the job.

On the first day my manager sat me down at a desk in the warehouse, gave me a copy of the company catalogue, and told me to read it from cover to cover. Two days later, I told him that I’d finished reading it, and he said, “Read it again.” This scenario repeated itself a number of times over the next two weeks. Finally, I asked when the next phase of my training would start. “How about now?” came the cheerful reply, and with that he grabbed his car keys, and enthusiastically told me to get in his car. We spent the next two hours cruising around with him pointing out the locations of our major customers in the city. Back at the office, I thanked him for the tour, and enquired as to when the rest of my training would begin. “That was it – that was your training. You’ve studied the catalogue, you know where the customers are, now go sell something!”

Needless to say, without any guidance as to what to do, my first sales calls did not go well. In fact, as a defence mechanism against my embarrassment for not knowing what the heck I was doing, I started telling customers I was the new technical support person for the company, and I would ask if there were any problems I could solve for them. That was my whole sales approach for the first few months. It did help in starting some dialogues, and actually led to some sales (though I have to admit I wasn’t setting the world on fire with my spectacular sales numbers!). I was merely “lucking” into sales simply by virtue of being in the right place, at the right time. In other words, I was selling by accident, and not with any plan or purpose.

How do you ensure you’re selling on purpose instead of by accident? I’ve identified a number of ways to do that, and empathy plays a major role in all of them.

They say that if you want to know a person, walk a mile in their shoes. That’s what empathy is all about – understanding why and how other people do the things they do. The dictionary definition is: To mentally identify with another person, thereby understanding their side of a situation. So put yourself in your prospect’s or customer’s shoes for a few minutes, and imagine how it feels to be them. What’s going through their minds when you try to interact with them.

Picture this: you’re the customer, and you’re in your office, fifteen things to do in the next ten minutes, a deadline looming for a meeting with the boss, seven things you’re thinking about all at once, and you’re expecting a call from your spouse. Just then your phone rings. Thinking it’s your spouse, you reach out and take the call without thinking to check the caller I.D.

So – you pick up the phone, and lo and behold, it’s a salesperson on the other end. Here’s what the salesperson actually says: “Hi there – this is Derrick Pick calling from Solutions R’ Us. I’m the new Account Executive for your territory, so I’m just calling to introduce myself and let you know all the great things that Solutions R’ Us has to offer, and to see if there’s anything I can help you with today…”

As the harried prospect, here’s what your brain actually hears:  “Hi there, I’m Blankety-blank from some company or other, and I’m just calling to waste some of your time and make you late for your meeting, and blah, blah, blah……”

How can you avoid this scenario?  Well, one of the rules of selling on purpose instead of by accident is to put yourself in the customer’s shoes. Use empathy to gain an understanding of what would be of value to them in their situation, and give them a reason to engage with you.

Prior to contacting the customer:

Research the customer’s organization. Visit their website to develop an understanding of their situation, and identify some of the challenges the organization may be facing, and how you might be able help them meet and overcome those challenges.

Research the individual. Gain some insight into their background and current role – LinkedIn and Google are excellent for this. Anticipate what issues that would be uppermost in this customer’s mind. Talk with other people in your company or industry about dealing with people in similar circumstances. Conduct a quick search of the internet for blogs, articles, tweets, etc. for tips on possible ways you could help.

Use this knowledge to gain a preliminary understanding of the customer, and to anticipate how your product or service could help them.  Then you can develop a customized strategy for your approach. What will you say to gain their attention and interest? What questions will you ask to gain a deeper understanding of their issues, goals, and challenges? What benefits of your solution will you present to help them understand the value you bring to the table, and what would motivate them to take action?

Using empathy to put yourself in the customer’s shoes will better prepare you for your interactions with them, and position you for more successful outcome to your sales calls.

Look for more ways that you can use empathy to help you sell on purpose instead of by accident in future blogs.