The 3 Levels of Sales Questions

The most important selling skill for the Ag Sales Professional

“How are you evaluated?”  Those four simple words turned out to be the most important learning moment with our largest customer.  It changed the way we presented products and how we thought about the products & services we offered. 

Selfishly, I love this part of sales training.  First, it’s the biggest transformation in a salesperson’s selling skills.  Previously, they viewed the part of asking their customers questions as a nuisance to get through so they could present all the great things about their products. 

After this part of the training workshop, they now view the discovery part of selling as the most important.

Entry Level:    These are standard get-to-know-the-business type questions… “How many cows are you milking?  Do you do your own agronomy work? Who does your nutrition work? etc.”  These are basic questions that you might already know the answers to, but you want to confirm them.  These can be generated by very easy observations.  You see he has an old New Holland tractor that looks like it’s in rough shape and you ask about it.  Or there seems to be a lot of on-farm storage and you can ask an easy non-intrusive question like, “That’s a nice bin set up.  Looks like you have more flexibility in storing grain than most do.  You can probably store a couple of years crop in them”.  I know that’s not a question, but it should get the farmer talking.

Next Level:  The next layer of questions gets a little deeper into the organization and gets you a little closer to discovering if there is a need…. “Any issues you are looking for help on? Production issues, animal health issues, yield problems, etc.”  You can ask some discovery-type questions about any new technology or major industry events… “So, are you scouting your fields with drones yet?  Do you think you will be able to control weeds with the new regulation on XYZ herbicide?”  This gives you insight into their bias on current industry trends.  If they reply that they think drones are the newest technique for the government to spy on us, you might want to tread lightly when bragging about the way your new combine can gather remote data.

These two levels are the basic sales questions and definitely need to be asked and understood as soon as you feel comfortable asking them.  Without them, it’s tough to truly position a product or service properly to a customer’s need.  Now, we are ready to have the real fun of selling to farmers and Ag buyers: Asking high-value questions!

High-Value Questions:  These are the questions that really get to the heart of what it takes to not only sell them, but make a difference in their life. 

Typically, they:

  • Shift the relationship to a whole new level of understanding
  • Initiate deep thought, discussion & reflection
  • Stimulate change in the customer’s operation or your own or both

As consultative salespeople, we are all looking for an advantage and to make a deeper connection with our customers.  High-Value Questions are a critical element in speeding up that process. 

Back to “How are you evaluated?” 

My sales manager was riding with me this day as I made a sales call on our largest customer:  the buyer for a large Ag retail chain.  As we sat in the small conference room making my presentation, my sales manager sort of bluntly asked the buyer, “So, how are you evaluated?”  I felt the air getting sucked out of the room as this was way off the agenda topics they had approved before our sales call.  Fortunately, the buyer paused briefly, his rough demeanor softened a bit, and then he answered. 

With this one question, we discovered a major gap in our sales approach after almost 20 years of selling to them.  It would alter the way we would sell to that customer for the foreseeable future.  We had been so focused on the profits for the owners and the benefits to their customers.  We never even thought about the motivations or goals of the professional buyer. 

Keys to Asking High-Value Questions:

  1.  You have to earn the right to ask it:  This is the most important aspect.  We asked this Ag buyer this question after many years of working with him.  Not that you have to wait years, but you need to have a high level of trust built up before asking some of these questions.
  2. You must be extremely aware of knowing if you went too far with the question:  This can be subtle from visual clues to the answer they give you.  Or the answer they don’t give you.  If you did go too far, then explain why you asked the question.
  3. You must have a reason for asking the question:  You should be prepared in case the farmer replies with “Why do you need to know that?”  Or “Why do you ask?”  Even if they don’t ask, they might be wondering why you asked.  So, always tie the question back to the direction you were going with it.  Be open to the fact that the answer might take you in an unknown direction with this customer.  That’s ok because that is why it’s a High-Value Question.  But don’t get caught asking a question and not know why.  It makes you look like you’re just being nosy or prying.
  4. Let the question resonate:  Some buyers think on their feet quickly and know the answers off the top of their head.  Other times, especially if they had not thought about it, they need time to process the question and think deeper about their answer.  If you sense this, let it go and visit it later in the meeting, or maybe not until a future meeting.

Now, I have a question for you.  “What’s the best question you ever asked a customer or prospect? And What did the answer do for you to help sell this customer better?”

Send me your answers to these two questions.  I really want to hear from you!

I’m going to select the top 5 questions and send each of them a signed copy of my book, “A Season for Sales”

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