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Penetrate the Smokescreen


Has this ever happened to you? You’re in the middle of your second or third “good discussion” with a prospect. Everything’s going great. The prospect seems engaged and positively disposed to work with you. The prospect poses an innocent-sounding question:

“Say, how big is your company?”

Without hesitating for even a moment, you answer that question. You recite, more or less verbatim, the standard reply you were trained to recite when people ask you about the size of your company, the answer laid out for you in your orientation workshops, your promotion materials, and your brochures: 500 employees, one headquarters location, three regional offices, and six assembly facilities in three states.

The prospect nods. The conversation continues. Although there are plenty of smiles, pleasantries, and earnest promises to be in touch as you wrap up the meeting, the oddest thing takes place once you leave the building.

All forward motion in the sale stops.

The prospect no longer returns your calls. Your emails receive ambiguous replies and weeks pass by. You’re off the prospect’s radar screen. You find that no one else in the company seems willing to acknowledge your attempts to reach out, either. It’s like the prospect has ordered everyone in the enterprise to deny your company’s existence.

What happened?

You answered the prospect’s question.

David Sandler advised that you should only answer your prospects’ questions if doing so can help you … or at least can’t hurt you. Since prospects tend to “smokescreen” their questions – meaning that they tend to ask questions whose true purposes aren’t likely to be clear to you at first – you must make sure, first and foremost, that you’re answering the real question.

Guess what? When that prospect asked, “How big is your company?”
the real question was:

“Will you be able to handle an 11-state distribution schedule?

As it happens, you can handle an 11-state distribution schedule. But the answer your company taught you to repeat during your onboarding sessions only mentions three states. And that was enough (non)information for this prospect to tune you out … without telling you why.

In most cases, and especially in the early going, you have to assume that every question you hear from a prospect is a smokescreen question. So the question, “How soon can you get a shipment to us?” may mean, “Can you get a shipment to us by 10:30 Thursday morning?” The question, “How strict are you with quantity discounts?” may mean, “Can I take advantage of the quantity discount and arrange for a 14-day split-shipment?

If you make a habit of answering the first question you hear, you’ll never understand the real question!

You must discover why the prospect asked the question you just heard. You must identify the underlying intent. If you don’t know the intent — the importance and true relevance of the question to the topic of discussion — you can’t respond intelligently.

How do you identify the intent? By Reversing.

Reversing is the strategy of responding to your prospect’s questions and statements with a question. It puts the verbal “ball” back in the prospect’s court.

Reversing prevents you from attempting to mind-read. It adds clarity and completeness to the prospect’s smokescreen questions and statements. It helps you uncover the underlying intent of those questions and statements.

Some Reversing questions include:

  • Why do you ask?
  • Why is that important?
  • What are you hoping I’ll tell you?
  • Why did you bring that up just now?
  • What are you really asking?
  • What are you really saying?

Reversing must be done with caution. Firing back with questions in response to the prospect’s questions may sound harsh. So, in most cases, you will want to precede your questions with softening statements.

  • That’s a good question. And, you’re asking me that because…?
  • I’m glad you asked me that. What are you hoping I’ll tell you?
  • Many people ask me that. And that’s important to you because…?
  • That’s an interesting question. Why do you ask? (What brought that up?)
  • Good point. And, you brought that up now because…?
  • I appreciate you sharing that. I can’t help wondering, what are you really saying?

It often takes three or more Reverses to get to the prospect’s real question. In this case, if you’d asked effective Reversing questions, you could have gotten to the prospect’s true question and confirmed that an 11-state rollout was no problem. And you’d still be in the game.

By making better decisions about which questions you answer directly and which you Reverse, you can increase the quality of the information you uncover during discussions with prospects, get behind the smokescreen and close more sales.