The Five Whys: Sales prospecting questions that zero in on a buyer’s pain
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The Five Whys: Sales prospecting questions that zero in on a buyer’s pain

You learned back in Sales 101 that the key to selling is asking the right questions. But once you get out in the field you quickly realize that you can’t just ask somebody, “What do you need?” Discovery is a complex process and it takes skill and perseverance to get beyond the superficial sales prospecting questions that every salesperson knows to ask.

Here’s a tool that can help you dig deeper. It’s called the Five Whys Technique, and it’s used by investigators, journalists and other skilled interviewers to learn more. It relies on what’s called a “threaded conversation.” The idea is that your next question always picks up on a “thread” from the prospect’s previous answer.

Here’s an example of how a salesperson would use the Five Whys to identify a need her competitors will probably overlook:

The sales prospect is Frank, the VP Operations at Alaska Transport, who oversees a fleet of trucks that travel rough roads in Alaska. He agrees to talk to Denise, a rep from Acme Truck Supplies.

Denise: So, how tough are the roads on your tires?
Frank: Murder. But we’re pretty happy with the tires we’ve been buying.
Denise: Must be tough on the entire vehicle. What other parts do you replace the most?
Frank: Shocks and axles.
Denise: Anything else?
Frank: (laughing nervously) Well, drivers.

The Five Whys technique in action
So far, Denise has been following a pretty standard line of questioning. But she realizes she may have found Frank’s real business problem, his pain point. So she begins to explore the opportunity using the Five Whys technique.

Denise: Interesting, Frank. Why do you need to replace drivers?
Frank: The road vibration. Those dirt roads have gotten a lot worse in the last year.
Denise: Why’s that such a problem?
Frank: It gets to the drivers physically.
Denise: Help me understand why.
Frank: Doctors have told several drivers that the heavy vibration is bad for their joints.
Dennis: So how are you handling that?
Frank: We haven’t figured it out yet. Last year, we’ve doubled the number of trips. That means more empty loads on the return trip, which is when the vibration is worst. So we’ve had a lot of driver turnover.
Dennis: What’s the impact on your business when you lose good drivers?
Frank: We’ve got a huge contract in the works and may have to back out for lack of trained drivers.

AHA! It took five “Whys” to determine the “hidden” reason why Frank needs to replace drivers and discover the sales prospect’s real problem. (You’ll notice that the questions aren’t always literally “why.” Denise used different variations, but each one picks up on the last thing Frank told her.)

The result? Denise’s persistence has uncovered a real need that she might be able to address. And even better, it’s a need that most salespeople would never have discovered using traditional product-focused questions.

Give this technique a try on your next sales call and see what you find out.

photo credit: wstryder

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