One of the questions I end up asking salespeople all over the world is very simple: “What are you doing to leverage curiosity in the sales process?” Interestingly enough, the most common response I hear back is, “Huh?”
Curiosity is indeed the genesis of each and every sale, yet it continues to be the least talked-about subject in sales training. Essentially, it’s the spark that makes people want to find out more about the products and services you offer. In this chapter, you will learn how to leverage curiosity as a strategic tool to secure a greater share of your prospect’s time and attention, which should translate into significantly increased sales results.
The newly hired salesperson, trying desperately to rationalize his lack of production during the first month on the job, explains to his boss, “Sir, I can lead the ‘horses’ to water, but I can’t make ’em drink.”
“Make ’em drink?” the sales manager sputters. “Making customers drink is not your job. Your job is to make them thirsty!”
The sales manager in this anecdote makes an interesting point. It’s not a salesperson’s job to make people buy. Rather, the salesperson’s function is to uncover new opportunities, and then pique the prospect’s interest enough so they will want to know more about the products and services being offered.
Throughout Question Based Selling, we want prospective customers to become curious. We want them to ask questions, and we want them to be “thirsty” for more information about the value we provide. But this requires a fundamental change in strategy for many salespeople. Rather than just launching into a litany of features and benefits in an attempt to pique your prospect’s interest, QBS would recommend that you first pique the prospect’s interest in order to create more opportunities to identify potential needs and present solutions.
If you want to engage new prospects in productive sales conversations, you essentially have two choices. You can be aggressive and try to force your will upon them, or you can make prospects curious enough to want more information about the value you provide—so they will invite you in. Not surprisingly, most of us would rather be invited in by willing prospects than try to rely on brute force.
The Conversational Layering Model (from chapter 6) introduced the notion that curiosity is the key that unlocks the rest of the sales process. If a prospective buyer is not the least bit interested in who you are, or what you can do for them, then you are not likely to get their time or attention. Fortunately, the opposite is also true. As prospective buyers become more curious about the value you might be able to offer, it becomes much easier to create new opportunities to sell. This is actually good news for salespeople because it simplifies the sales process. It also puts you in control of your own destiny. In other words, if you can make prospects curious, then you will have many opportunities to establish credibility, build relationships, uncover needs, present solutions, and secure the commitments necessary to move forward with a sale.
Now, the question is, what is it exactly that makes people curious?
There are lots of ways to make people curious. You can make them curious by saying something that piques their interest. You can also leverage curiosity with provocative voice-mail messages or by sending intriguing emails. We will analyze each of these as the chapter unfolds, but for starters, let’s begin by talking about the absolutely easiest way to pique someone’s curiosity.
Piquing someone’s curiosity doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, the easiest way to pique someone’s curiosity is to simply say, Guess what? Virtually everyone you say this to will instantly stop what they’re doing and respond by saying, What? That was easy. For the moment, at least, you have this person’s complete and undivided attention.
You can produce a similar result by saying, Can I ask you a question? That’s another easy yes. Test it out for yourself. Simply walk up to the next person you see and say, Excuse me, but can I ask you a question? This question usually stops people in their tracks because they instinctively begin to wonder what you are about to ask.
Both of these questions are designed to create what we call a mini-invitation, which is a prerequisite to customer engagement. We said earlier that you must first have a prospect’s time and attention in order to position the value of your product or service. In the Conversational Layering Model, we characterized this as having a forum for selling. But sometimes (especially in sales) you have to walk before you can run.
At the very beginning of the sales process, sellers haven’t yet earned the right to challenge the customer’s thinking. You certainly are not going to ask for or secure several hours of the prospect’s time prior to building some credibility with them. It’s more likely that you are just trying to get through the initial moments of the call. So, by asking for smaller commitments—what we call mini-invitations—you make it easier for prospects to engage, at least initially. From there, what you do to pique the prospect’s interest further will ultimately determine whether the sales process moves forward or stalls.
This is important because success in the larger sale is usually the result of an accumulation of smaller successes along the way. And, if you are able to consistently secure the prospect’s attention, you will create many more opportunities to expand your sales conversations.
To illustrate, my needs development strategy is very consistent from sales conversation to sales conversation. For example, I don’t start probing for needs without first asking, “Can I ask a couple specifics about your current _________ environment?” Likewise, I rarely offer a suggestion without first asking, “Would you like to hear some feedback?” We use this technique throughout QBS to garner the prospect’s time and attention—by creating a mini-invitation—which is far more effective than trying to bully your way into a conversation.
I’d like to add that leveraging curiosity in the strategic sales process is not some sort of manipulation strategy. On the contrary, asking a question to make sure it’s “okay” to proceed is not only good manners, it demonstrates that you are sensitive to the individual situation and you are also very respectful of another person’s needs. Let me ask you, do customers appreciate it when a salesperson is respectful of their time and space? Of course they do. I don’t apologize for being respectful.
For many sellers, voice mail has become the enemy. It’s the gatekeeper that stands in the way of a salesperson talking directly with the prospect they are trying to reach. As I said earlier, well-intended salespeople are leaving thousands of voice-mail messages every day, but only a small fraction of these calls are ever returned.
Prospects, on the other hand, think voice mail is terrific. Automated messaging systems give them the flexibility to be out of the office or away from their desks, yet they can still receive important messages. Voice mail also enables key decision makers to screen incoming calls, so they can focus on their business rather than be interrupted by constant solicitations. Email serves as a similar screening process for customers.
Some sales trainers teach salespeople to hang up when they get a prospect’s voice mail and not leave a message. Instead, they would rather you keep calling and calling until the person you’re trying to reach actually picks up the phone. The busier the prospect, or the more averse they are to receiving sales calls, the less productive this strategy is, however.
Other trainers suggest that you should leave increasingly forceful voice-mail messages so prospects will feel a sense of obligation to call you back. The problem is, these messages often fall victim to Charlie Brown’s Teacher Syndrome (chapter 6), because salespeople end up leaving the same old well-worn messages over and over.
In Question Based Selling, we want to differentiate ourselves from the typical sales caller, but not just for the sake of being different. We want to differentiate ourselves for the sake of being more effective. This means leveraging curiosity on voice-mail messages to get more callbacks and, ultimately, to engage more prospects in productive sales conversations.
I completely understand what it feels like to receive very few return calls when leaving voice mail. But once I learned how to make people curious, voice mail became a terrific asset and a good friend. In fact, one of the secrets to my success in selling was that I had a very high engagement rate—later on in my sales career, 80 to 85 percent of the voice-mail messages I left generated a return call. Let me say that again: four out of five people that I called were calling me back. Why did they return my call? It’s because when I left a voice-mail message, I didn’t think about features, benefits, solutions, needs, or relationships. I thought about only one thing—what could I say that would cause this person to become curious enough to call me back?
Leveraging curiosity does require some thought and a pinch of creativity, as there is no magical script that will guarantee your success on every attempt. But there are many ways that you can pique someone’s interest (when leaving voice mail) in order to engage potential customers in a mutually productive sales conversation. Let me give you a few ideas to get you started.
Salespeople aren’t always calling new prospects. Sometimes we’re calling people where there is already an existing relationship—for example, you might have an existing relationship with customers, business partners, or other contacts in your industry. Calling someone familiar can be much easier than making a cold call, but you still have to compete with everything else that’s vying for that person’s time and attention. So rather than leave the same old generic-sounding message, you might leave a voice-mail message that says:
“Hi, Susan, this is (your name and affiliation). I was hoping to catch you for a minute because I have a question—that only you can answer. If you could please call me back, I should be here in my office this afternoon until around 4:30 p.m. My number is (770) 840-7640.
Will Susan return the call? If your voice-mail message makes her curious, she will. This technique is particularly effective because it’s personal without being pushy. It also conveys a certain sense of urgency. After all, any question that “only you” can answer must be important. It’s also very easy to implement. Before you dial the phone, just think of a question that only your prospect can answer. Examples include: Susan, how do you feel about ________? or What is your opinion on __________? These are questions that only Susan can answer (by definition) because you are soliciting her thoughts, feelings, and/or opinions. By the way, most people you are already familiar with love to give their opinions, and they will likely be flattered that you asked.
Using a similar approach, you can make existing contacts curious by leaving a voice-mail message that says, “Hi, Richard. I decided to pick up the telephone and call because something happened yesterday just before lunch that made me think of you. If you get a minute, could you please call me back at (770) 840-8640? I should be in the office until around 11:15 this morning. I appreciate your help.”
If you were Richard, would you return the call? Most people would, especially if they receive the message before 11:15 a.m. They would want to know what had happened that made you think of them. Note: when they do return your call, be ready with a story or anecdote that will lead the conversation into your business reason for calling.
What’s a County Tax Record?
Dave Brown is a commercial real estate agent in Atlanta. After hearing about Question Based Selling through a mutual friend, Dave offered to buy me a steak dinner if I would give him a few pointers. I’m a sucker for a good steak, so I accepted his invitation.
Over dinner, Dave went to great lengths to explain that selling commercial real estate was somehow different from other types of sales. “How is it different?” I asked. Then he started to describe an all-too-familiar scenario, where he was making call after call, and leaving message after message, but very few prospects ever called back. So far, selling commercial real estate didn’t sound much different than selling anything else.
He went on to explain that the objective in commercial real estate was to match landowners who wanted to sell their property with builders who needed land to develop. The challenge was, most property owners who did want to sell had already enlisted another agency, while those who didn’t want to sell would rather not be bothered. Keep in mind that Dave was just one of many commercial real estate agents in the Atlanta market at the time lobbing cold calls in to landowners who, for all practical purposes, were usually not very excited to receive yet another sales call. Consequently, it was difficult to find new prospect opportunities.
After dinner we drove to Dave’s office, where I asked him to show me how he made sales calls. He plopped down behind a large wooden desk and pulled out a list of prospects. Then he dialed the telephone, waited for the answering machine to beep, and left the following message.
“Mr. Prospect, my name is Dave Brown, and I’m with ABC Realty, the leading commercial real estate brokerage firm in Atlanta. Our firm specializes in getting landowners the highest value for their property. I would like to have an opportunity to talk with you about the possibility of listing your property. Please call me at (404) 972-4545.”
I asked Dave if he remembered the Charlie Brown cartoons. He did, and we both chuckled when he realized his opening blurb sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher. Everyone trying to sell commercial real estate in Atlanta was calling the same pool of prospects, and they were essentially leaving some version of the same professional-sounding voice mail. So, by the time the prospect actually listened to Dave’s message, it sounded more like: “Hi, Mr. Prospect, this is Dave Brown with ABC Realty, the leading…wah…wah…wah firm in Atlanta. We specialize in…wah …wah…wah, and I wanted to get together with you to…wah…wah…wah.”
The root of Dave’s problem was easy to identify. Since the voice mails he was leaving sounded just like everyone else’s, prospects weren’t giving his message any more attention than the other real estate calls they were dismissing on a regular basis. Therefore, the problem was simple: if Dave didn’t even get a chance to stand up at the plate, he would never have an opportunity to take a swing at the ball. Dave knew it was time for something different. He just didn’t know what.
I pulled out a diagram of the Conversational Layering Model and explained that curiosity is the key that unlocks the rest of the sales process. Furthermore, I pointed out that if a prospective customer is not the least bit curious about who you are or what you can do for them, they will quickly disregard your voice-mail message. Now Dave was curious. All we had to do was figure out what would make prospective landowners curious.
Having never sold real estate, I didn’t profess to have all the answers. But we nosed around his office for a few minutes, thinking that maybe we could come up with a few ideas.
“What kind of books are these over here on your shelves?” I asked.
“Those are real estate law books,” Dave said.
“What about inside your glass cabinet?” I probed.
“Those are multiple-listing guides,” he answered. Dead-end on both counts.
“What about these?” I asked, pointing to a pile of computer printouts on Dave’s credenza.
It was a stack of county tax records. What’s a county tax record, I wondered? Apparently, in the state of Georgia, real estate agents can print a county tax record for any parcel of property—complete with a description of the property, tax information, and the original purchase price. “Now, that’s interesting,” I said. “Can you print one for the next person on your prospect list?”
While I drafted a calling script, Dave headed off into the adjoining office to print a copy of Mr. Jones’s county tax record. When he returned, I handed him a copy of a script that I had just created. “If you get Mr. Jones’s answering machine, this is the message I want you to leave.” In addition, I said, “When you make the call, I want you to be holding Mr. Jones’s tax record in your hand.” I didn’t care if he held it over his head or behind his back, as long as it was in his hand. Then, Dave dialed the telephone, listened for the beep, and left the following message:
“Hi, Mr. Jones, my name is Dave Brown, and I’m with ABC Realty. I’m holding a copy of the county tax record for your property at (such and such address) in my hand…and I have a question. If you would, could you please call me back at (404) 972-4545? I should be in the office first thing tomorrow morning.”
Do you think Mr. Jones will return the call? You betcha he will! Wouldn’t you? What’s more important is why he’d call back. Dave’s message was designed to do one thing—to make the property owner curious. As we said, curious prospects will choose to engage. It’s important to note that while this particular messaging technique is highly positioned, it’s also 100 percent accurate. When Dave makes these calls, he is holding a copy of the prospect’s county tax record in his hand, and he does have a question.
I like to use this anecdote as a teaching tool during live QBS training seminars because it encourages salespeople to think outside the box. At a minimum, it’s very different than leaving the same old “professional-sounding” voice-mail message. Let me ask, would you return the call?
The next question is, what should you say when Mr. Jones calls you back? Were you wondering this too? It’s simple. You tell him why you called. Let’s play out the scenario and you will see what I mean.
“This is Ed Jones returning your call. You left a message on my answering machine last night—something about my county tax record?”
“Yes, Mr. Jones, let me pull your file. As I said on the message, my name is Dave Brown, and I’m with ABC Realty here in Atlanta. The reason I called is because we are currently working with three builders who are looking for 100-plus acre tracts of land. I don’t have any idea if you would ever be interested in listing or selling your property, but I noticed on your county tax record that you currently own 248 acres at the corner of Buford Highway and Route 141, so I thought I would pick up the telephone and see if it makes sense for us to have a conversation.”
Not everyone who returns Dave’s call will be ready to sell their property. Some people may never be ready. But again, if you want to have any chance to swing at the ball, you must first give yourself an opportunity to stand up to the plate. This means getting real “live” prospects on the telephone, and then causing them to want to engage in a productive conversation about their needs and the potential value you provide.
You might be shocked to know that most of the prospects who return Dave’s call actually thank him for calling. That’s because rather than trying to force his way in, Dave takes an understated approach that also provides a valuable service. Owning land is an important investment, and, as such, investors do want to know about potential opportunities when they arise. Even if they are not ready to sell at this time, this technique still initiates a conversation where Dave can begin to build a relationship that could yield potential opportunities in the future.
When was the last time you were thanked for making a prospect call?
Do you take email for granted? Many salespeople do. They fall into the trap of thinking that email is an enabling technology, one that gives them easy access to prospects and customers. In their minds, all they have to do is send an email message and they will automatically get through to busy prospects. The problem is, email provides easy access for everyone else too, including your competitors. As a result, prospects and customers are being deluged with electronic messages, and it’s no longer unusual for decision makers and key influencers to receive fifty, eighty, or more than a hundred email messages per day. Prospects then have to sift through all the fluff to get to the really important information.
When I send an email message, I don’t consider it “fluff.” To me, it’s a valuable document containing important information. As a result, I want the recipients of my email messages to read and consider the content of them, preferably sooner than later. That’s why I focus on leveraging curiosity with email. Much like with voice mail, leveraging curiosity causes people to give your email messages a higher priority, and as a result, you get an increased share of their time and attention.
When you send email messages to prospects, customers, or coworkers, they usually review them by downloading messages onto a personal computer, or scanning them on a smartphone. As you know, messages are displayed in a list showing the date and time of the message, who the message is from, and its subject. The date and sender fields are automatically assigned, but the “subject” field provides another wonderful opportunity for sellers to pique the prospect’s curiosity.
When a prospective customer reviews their email messages, you can assume that they are going to prioritize messages by sender and by subject. Messages that appear to be more important or urgent are undoubtedly going to be opened and read first. But so are the messages that make these folks curious.
Unfortunately, salespeople have a bad habit of using the subject field to satisfy the recipient’s curiosity, by telling them what the message is about. There’s some irony in this practice. If you reveal the purpose of your message in the subject field, then why do they need to read it?
Much like the headline of a newspaper, a question-based salesperson wants to leverage curiosity in the subject field in order to increase the amount of mindshare we get from prospects and customers. Therefore, our objective is simple—we want prospects, customers, and coworkers to notice the subject, become curious, and consequently open the email to read what it says. As an example, here’s a subject heading that I have used many times in email messages to pique the recipient’s curiosity:
Date: May 23, 2023
Subject: What would happen if…?
Most people who receive an email that says “What would happen if…?” will instantly double-click on the subject to find out what the message is about. As an added bonus, if your message heading makes them really curious, it’s likely that yours will be one of the first messages they open.
Again, be creative. There’s an infinite supply of subject phrases that you can use to make your email messages more provocative. Here are some other phrases that will accomplish the same objective.
On second thought…
Wanted to ask a favor…
Would like your opinion about…
Each of these subject phrases is intentionally intriguing by design. In my mind, the subject field’s only purpose is to pique the recipient’s curiosity so they will want to open the message and read it. And as with voice mail, the more curious they become, the more they will want to read your email. Note that the easiest way to come up with valuable subject fields for your email messages is to skip over the subject and compose your actual email message. Then, go back and look at what you wrote. Within the context of your messages, there will be all kinds of phrases you can use (followed by a “…”) that will make people want to know more.
What’s the purpose of the “…”? It means there’s more to come. How do they find out what else is in your email? Simply open it up and read it.
I began this book by saying: Selling is a creative act. It’s clear that individual salespeople have to differentiate themselves from everyone else who is also competing for the prospect’s time and attention. One of the most effective ways to set yourself apart is by leveraging curiosity. If you can make prospects curious, you will penetrate more new accounts, uncover more needs, communicate more value, overcome more objectives, and as a result, your sales results will increase dramatically.
The appropriate curiosity strategy will vary depending on whether you’re leaving a voice-mail message, sending an email, or talking directly with the prospect. It will also depend on whether you have an existing relationship or are trying to penetrate new accounts. On one hand, you don’t want to be too aggressive. On the other hand, you want to be bold enough to successfully engage potential buyers in a conversation that will lead to real opportunities. We will explore many of these subtleties and transitions later in chapter 12, when QBS shows you how to “Turn Your Cold Calls into Lukewarm Calls.”
For now, realize that making someone curious is not the end of the sales process. Rather, it’s just the beginning—curiosity will help you secure the prospect’s time and attention in order to give you an opportunity to establish credibility, build relationships, uncover needs, present solutions, and move the opportunity toward a favorable purchase decision.
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