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Questions are the Answer

A big part of management is asking the right questions - and and listening to the answers

Baseball pitchers and salespeople both face the same question over and over: “What have you done for me lately?”

The better question for a sales manager to ask salespeople and for a baseball manager to ask players is, “What have I done to help you lately?”

I have a son who is a pitcher on a Division I college baseball team. His worth to the team is judged by his latest performance on the mound. He works hard meeting the pitching staff weekly practice schedule in order to prepare for his next game. The problem with this approach to coaching is that every pitcher is different and each pitcher requires an individualized weekly plan in order to prepare for their next game. There are no cookie-cutter solutions to help pitchers reach their individual highest level of performance each week. But coaches keep trying and they keep getting the same results – not always the best. I think this coaching problem exists because most coaches coach the way they were coached when they were playing college ball and the good with the bad is handed down from one generation of coaches to another. As a result, advancements in the art of pitching are lost but to the few who keep up with their profession. The same may be said for sales managers.

While watching practice one day I asked a pitcher who had recently completed his four years as a player “did your coach ever talk with you? Did he sit down with you one-on-one weekly to discuss the last game you pitched? Did he ask questions like, ‘what went well?  What do you need to work on? How does your arm feel?’ Is there anything as a coach he could do to help you better prepare for next week’s game?  His answer was “Not really. We had team meetings and sometimes short one-on-one dugout conversations during practices, but I was always being told and never asked what I thought. To be honest I never felt my coach cared too much about me. There was always pressure to do better but without any real help on what I needed help with.”

“To be honest I never felt my coach cared too much about me.” What a sad way to play the game you love. In his book “Start With Why,” Simon Sinek wrote, “there are two ways to influence human behavior; you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.” This is something all coaches and those that coach salespeople should remember. After 40 years as a senior manager, I have learned one very important leadership principle, and that is to simply show you care – that you care about your people, customers and about the sales game you play.

To reach this level of play we must first begin with another important management principle: the person closest to a problem is the best expert on the problem. As a sales manager/coach, it is our job to better understand the problems our salespeople face and coach them, first through understanding their needs and then help them develop a plan specifically tailored for their success. Steven Covey calls this diagnose before you prescribe. Even top-performing ball players and salespeople require coaching. Depending on the level of a salesperson’s performance, this could require a weekly or biweekly one-on-one coaching meetingI call “The Big Game Sales Meeting”.

During these meetings the manager/coach works with the sales person in an inspiring supportive manner. As playwright Eugene Lonesco once said, “It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.”In addition to collaborative plans, the questions we ask as managers communicate what is important and that is what drives behavior.

If sales managers make a habit of asking these five questions during regularly scheduled meetings, salespeople will learn to better prepare for their Big Game one-on-one meetings with their sales manager and much more substantive information will be exchanged.

Hang a question mark on what matters most and what matters most to you becomes critically important to the people you manage.

Part One

  1. How did your month go and what were some of the highlights?
  2. What if any disappointments did you experience and what was the cause?
  3. What are your sales projections for the month and to what level of confidence do you have in reaching this number, and why?
  4. What is your strategy that will assure you hit your sales target for the month?
  5. Are there any specific actions I can take to help assure you are a success (by providing resources, technical support, sales coaching, making sales calls with you etc.)?

But the next 12 example questions may be the most important. These are questions, if asked sincerely, build relationships and inspire performance.The manager should guide the conversation through two or three of the following questions and be careful not to dominate the conversation. You may develop your own similar questions, but it is important to only include the two or three questions that seem pertinent to your meeting. Eventually part two of your meeting will develop instinctively.

Part Two

  1. How do you study and continue to develop as a professional salesperson?
  2. How do you spend your spare time (hobbies, weekends, vacations)?
  3. What do you like people to know about you?
  4. How do you see the future?
  5. Will you give me some thoughts on your work now – your recent experiences?
  6. What did these experiences mean to you?
  7. How do you feel about your work communications and relationships?
  8. Do you feel you are receiving the training you need?
  9. Do you feel you are receiving the staff and management support you need?
  10. What parts of your work do you enjoy most?
  11. What parts of your job do you enjoy least?
  12. What things would you like to change?

There is a wrong way and a right way to manage by questions. The right way begins with a belief in the leadership principle that, the person closest to a problem is the best expert on the problem.If you ask your salespeople questions in a way that feels threatening – by an “I’ve got you now” tone or intent – such interactions will never be productive. If the questions are asked in the spirit of collaboration and caring such as and it’s clear that your intent is to understand and provide the proper support, you will excel in the direction of maximizing your sales staff’s potential.

The greatest complement you can give someone is to ask their opinion, listen to what they have to say, act on it.Salespeople are like anyone else, they want to make a difference, be valued and be appreciated. Anything less produces high turnover rates, poor sales performance and a sales force that never embraces a coach that does not care about them – not a great way to work in the job you love.

M. Jonathan Hackett is a sales representative and quality assurance manager for Adlam Films.He has seven years of experience in B2B sales and sales management.

Michael E. Hackett is a management consultant and mediator with more than 40 years of human resources experience and is. You can reach the Hacketts at mehackett@comcast.nte