May 16, 2022 • Podcast

What if the buyer withholds information or refuses to answer questions?

Paul addresses this common tactic designed to throw you, the salesperson, off your game.

Show Notes

Review the types of questions you’re asking. Are they open-ended or close-ended? Direct or indirect?

Always get permission to ask questions.

Be transparent and ask the buyer why they’re hesitant to share information.

Rebalance the pressure. (Tune in to find out what Paul means by that.)

Enlarge the conversation to remind the buyer of the complexity of their needs.

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What if the buyer withholds information or refuses to answer questions?

(Transcribed from podcast)

On today’s episode, we are going back to the website. That’s right. We have Mahdi—Mahdi actually asked this question this morning. I came into the office and I noticed his email. So, this is proof positive that we do answer the questions that salespeople submit us.

So here’s the challenge that Mahdi is dealing with. He works on selling sealing devices for plants. Not really sure what that is, but it doesn’t really matter. And here’s what’s happening. He’s putting together a quote for one of his customers, and the customer is not really giving him any information. The responses to his questions are very brief. The customer, in certain cases, is not willing to meet with him. Mahdi is facing a common challenge that procurement buyers will use to gain a negotiating edge. So, the question we are going to answer on today’s show is, “What if my customer or prospect refuses to answer my questions or they withhold information?” That’s what we’re going to get to on the show today.

Before we get into answering Mahdi’s question, just a reminder—make sure you visit Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Chapters, wherever you get your books, and pick up your copy of Selling Through Tough Times. We are facing some unprecedented challenges. When it comes to supply shortages, inflation, geopolitical uncertainty, there’s so much going on in this world. There’s so much uncertainty in that causes fear, that causes us to pause. Right now is the time to press on and move forward. In Selling Through Tough Times, you will learn exactly how to do that. So pick up your copy.

Let’s get back to that question: What should I do if my customer is withholding information or they’re not giving you much information, they’re not meeting with you? Let’s get right into it.

So first and foremost, it’s important to know that this tactic, used by procurement buyers especially, is designed to throw you, the salesperson, off of your game. This is designed to make you feel the pressure. They’re withholding information. They’re making you feel like you need to sell your product or solution more than they need to buy it. And they’re doing that to gain a negotiating edge.

Now, this creates a problem for several reasons. Number one, you, as the salesperson, you don’t have all the information that you need from the buyer. You need this information to be able to create a solution that will fully satisfy their needs. So, you know, you think about buyers that are doing this, they’re not really entering the exchange, the information exchange, with an open mind, or even with open information. Right? So, we’ve got to question—. We’ve got to figure out why that is. So, we’re going to talk about a few ways that we can do this on today’s episode.

So Mahdi, the first thing that I would recommend doing is to review the types of questions you are asking the buyer. So this is a procurement buyer, as you mentioned. I want you to think about the questions that you have been asking—not only at the words, but also look at the structure of the question. Are your questions open ended or are they close ended? And what we know is that with open-ended questions, buyers give a more elaborate response. Open-ended questions encourage a lengthy dialogue. Close-ended questions, they can typically be answered with a yes or no, or just a very few words. So, why not look at the structure of your questions initially to make sure that you’re asking the right questions the right way.

Now, look at the questions to check the tone of them. Are they more direct or are they indirect? Direct questions can sometimes put buyers’ guard up, right? And these questions can also be very high risk. They may be offensive to the customer. I remember one salesperson in one of our training seminars, he went to a customer’s job site, and he walked onto the job site and looked at a decision maker (or who he thought was the decision maker) and said, “Are you the man who makes the decision? That’s a very direct, very high-risk question, because, if they’re not the decision maker, you risk offending them. They may put their guard up. They’re going to conceal information.

So, let’s look at the type of our questions. Is it direct or indirect? A direct question is bold and straightforward, it’s to the point. It’s clear as to what you’re asking, but they’re also high-risk questions. Indirect questions are a little more palatable. They’re easier for customers to answer. For example, let’s say, Mahdi, you’re talking to this customer, and you ask the customer, “Are you looking just for a short-term fix or a long-term solution?” That’s a pretty direct question. And instead, a more indirect question would be, “What’s important on this project to ensure that you achieve your long-term objectives?” That would be a more indirect way to get to that same information. So, let’s keep those questions indirect. It’s easier for them to answer. And also, we want to avoid obvious leading questions.

Leading questions, meaning that we’re trying to lead the buyer down a certain path, or these questions are self-serving in some way. We had a— it was a water salesman. So this guy was in, come by, came by our office, and he’s selling, like the water cooler, big jug type service. And so here’s what he did. He came in and I met with him. I wanted to see how he was going to try and sell me on water. And one of his first questions was an obvious leading and self-serving question. He literally asked me, “So, Paul, do you drink water?” I was like, what kind of stupid question is that? Do you drink water? I mean, really? No, I don’t. I chew ice right now. I don’t drink water. What, who on earth leads with that type of question? That’s like saying, “So, do you breathe air?” It just makes me laugh thinking about that question. But anyway, avoid those obvious leading questions, because what will happen is our customers, they feel like we’re trying to work them over, we’re trying to use their answers against them. And if buyers feel like that, they’re not going to feel comfortable. All right. They’re not going to feel comfortable. Okay?

Now—we’re talking about our questions—one more idea, and we’re still, jeez, we’re only on tip one, but this is a big one. So, review your questions, make sure they’re open ended, indirect. Avoid those leading questions, and then finally, make sure you preface the question. And really what that means is, explain why you’re asking the question.

For example, Mahdi, let’s say one of the questions you’re asking this procurement buyer is, “What’s important to you when making this decision?” Pretty open question, pretty easy for them to answer. And there’s really no reason for them not to answer. But if they’re giving you short responses, try prefacing that question with something like this:

“You know, Mr. Customer, I want to make sure that I’m providing you with the best fit in the way of a solution. We’ve got several options to choose from. I just want to make sure that I’m gathering enough information to provide you with the right solution. So, if you would please, just describe to me what’s important to you when making this decision.” And by prefacing that question, it will help encourage an open response.

Now, another reason why they might not be answering your questions (so we’re going to move on to tip number two). So, tip number one was to review your questions. Tip number two is going to be gain permission. I hear this often with salespeople, especially when we’re doing some role-plays. Salespeople will not ask permission to ask the buyer a few questions. And this does a number of things. When you give the buyer a heads up that you’re going to ask them questions, they’re not caught off guard. And not only that, but if you ask too many questions right away, it starts to feel like an interrogation. And if you don’t have their permission to do so, it doesn’t really help with an open and fruitful exchange.

So what I would encourage you to do, Mahdi, is ask this customer—next time you get together, just say, “Is it okay if I begin with a few questions?” Gaining their permission gives them a heads up that you’re going to be asking questions. And, at that point, then they’re more likely to answer more likely to answer.

Tip number three. If you review your questions and you’re gaining permission to probe, and the buyer still is just withholding information, ask them why. Ask them why. Just be transparent with them and say, “You know, Mr. Customer, I’m hoping to gather some more information just so I can provide you with the best overall solution, but I’m just not getting much information from you. Is there a reason why you’re hesitant to share some additional information? Is there something else going on I should be aware of? I just need to know.” And remember that, when you’re putting together a proposal, you’re going to take your time, energy, and effort to put together a detailed proposal to satisfy that customer’s needs, you deserve the information you need to do so.

So, ask the customer why they’re hesitant to answer some of these questions, or just ask them to help you out and say, “Hey, could you help me and provide just a little more information?” So, ask them why they’re not sharing that information, and explain the importance of you gathering this information and reassure them that you’re using this information to help create a better overall solution for them.

Tip number four. We also need to rebalance the pressure in this situation. Remember that there’s a good chance this procurement buyer is using a negotiating technique to withhold information, to drag their feet, to purposely not be available. And they’re doing that to make you feel like you’ve got to sell it more than they need to buy it. They’re doing it to gain a negotiating edge. But you must realize, Mahdi, that this customer is also feeling some pressure to work with you. Why else would they be reaching out to you? Or why else are they going to continue to interact with you if they have no need for what you have to offer?

And so, what I would encourage you to do is to review some of the pressure that this customer is feeling. Maybe they’re having supply issues with their current supply partner, maybe there’s labor shortages, maybe they’re looking for ways to cut costs. Maybe there’s all these other pressures in their business, right now, that are influencing why they’re meeting with you, why they’re willing to look at your solution. Maybe they had a bad experience with your competitor. I would go through and gain a deeper understanding of what their pressure points are. What are they personally experiencing? What are their fears? What are their concerns? Think about this, and then you can reveal some of that pressure. If you feel like you have a deeper understanding at that point, then you can start to utilize some of that pressure to help the buyer reveal more information. So, identify those pressure points.

Tip number five. I would encourage you to go to other decision makers. Mahdi, another technique that this procurement buyer may be using is trying to put up walls between you and other key decision makers. I don’t know if you’re selling a technically complex product or what, but perhaps you could try going to engineer. You could try going to the engineering department. You could meet with a higher-level decision maker. You could meet with the maintenance person that is installing your product or any other person that influences the decision. Meet with those decision makers, as well, to try to gather information. And keep in mind that if this procurement buyer is not answering your questions completely and giving you enough information, you have to find the information somewhere. So go to some of the other decision makers involved to gather that information, and that can help you gain a deeper understanding of what’s really going on.

And then finally, the last tip. Tip number six. Remind the customer of the complexity of their needs. You know, in Value-Added Selling, we talk about enlarging the conversation. Enlarging the conversation is where we make the buyer aware of the complexity of their needs. That’s in part what we’re doing. And we do that by asking bigger questions: “What are the mission-critical issues for this upcoming project and why is that so important to you?” Granted, I know we’re going to be asking more questions, but what we’re trying to do here is draw attention to some of the pressure and remind the buyer of the complexity of their needs. As they’re aware of the complexity of their needs, price becomes less of an issue. So we can ask bigger questions that cause the buyer to think bigger. And as they think bigger, they’re going to, hopefully, give you more information. But even if they don’t reveal all that information to you, they’re thinking about it. And the thinking about it is going to influence how they make their buying decision. So enlarge that conversation,

Mahdi, I hope that helped you out, brother. Hey, best of luck as you’re going out there trying to gather this information. I hope these tips are helpful.

Make it a big day.

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