Diagnosing Your Prospects' Needs

Salesman and doctor in a casual meeting
Salespeople diagnose people, too. Ben Bloom/Stone/Getty Images

As a salesperson, your role is to help your prospects solve problems and create new opportunities. Your product or service will improve their situation in some way. But before you can show the prospect how that will happen, you must uncover their needs.

Finding a prospect's needs works a lot like a doctor's appointment. The prospect is willing to talk with you because he sees that he has a problem, but he may not know or realize the specific nature of his problem.

Like a doctor, your task is to ask detailed questions to identify the specific symptoms, and then use that information to diagnose a cure (hopefully, the product you're selling).

Make Your Prospect Comfortable

The first step in the diagnosis process is to give your prospect a level of comfort. You'll be asking some probing questions later on, and if the prospect isn't comfortable speaking with you, she might not be willing to answer those questions honestly. One way to make your prospect feel safer is to quickly demonstrate your understanding of her situation. If you've done your homework ahead of time by asking some qualifying questions and doing some Internet research, you can give a quick summary of what you understand her situation to be and then ask her to confirm. She'll feel much better about talking over her problems if she believes in your expertise and professionalism.

Discover Your Prospects Needs

Once you've broken the ice, you need to get an idea of the prospect's general state of mind.

Start with some fairly wide questions, like “What is your biggest goal right now? What is stopping you from reaching that goal? What steps have you taken to overcome that obstacle?” These questions will determine your prospect's biggest need as he understands it and gives you a glimpse into how he's thinking right now.

Now that you've determined the most significant issue or issues as the prospect understands them, you can probe a bit deeper with some more specific questions. You'll start with some questions about the past, which can help you identify a baseline. For example, if you're selling productivity tools, you can start by asking about how well your prospect's employees have performed in the past, how well they are performing now, what his expectations are as to their performance, how his customers have reacted to their performance level, and so on. This line of questioning will give you a solid grasp of how the prospect's needs have changed recently (if at all) and where he stands in relation to the goal you uncovered in the last step.

Discover Your Clients Level Satisfaction

If the prospect seems to be doing fairly well compared to his past situation, your task is now to probe for ways that he could be doing even better. Questions like, “Are you happy with your current level of performance? What areas would you like to see improved further?” and so on can help identify areas of opportunity where your product can help. On the other hand, if the prospect is clearly going downhill compared to his past performance, you can now drill down further to identify just how bad the problem is.

Often the best way to uncover the real problem is to keep asking “Why?” For example, if your prospect says that he's unhappy with the number of data entry errors he sees, ask “Why are your employees making a higher percentage of errors?” He might say that they are struggling with a new software program. You can then ask, “Why are they having a hard time with the program?” whereupon he might explain that it doesn't synchronize well with their existing system. Now you have a much better idea of the exact issue that is facing this prospect.

Asking diagnostic questions is a powerful tool in sales because not only does it enable you to uncover the prospect's needs, it also helps him to understand what those needs truly are. Many prospects have never really analyzed their situation, and what they think of as a primary need may only be a symptom of a deeper need – which your questions can help to uncover.

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