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I have to start this post with a story.

Some years ago, I was the executive assistant to one of the top executives in IBM. We were sitting down for our morning meeting to review the day and our priorities. He had just returned from the office after several days in the field with sales people and customers.

I asked him, “How did the visits go?” It was all the excuse he needed to go on a rampage.

“I was visiting this sales team and they were really excited about a big deal they had closed. I asked, ‘What did you sell it for?’ Their answer was, ‘About $15 million….’!”

His frustration was he wanted to understand what the customer was trying to achieve, what problem/opportunity they were trying to address. In this case, the right answer would have been, “We are helping them with a new wire transfer system. Their current process is manual, it takes them a lot of time to complete each transaction and the transactions are skyrocketing. We will help them achieve……..”

In the years since, both as an executive and consultant, I’ve asked similar questions of thousands of sales people. Too often, the answer is very similar to the response my boss got, “It was a $1M deal, the ARR is $500K….”

The responses usually focus on the result for the sales person, not the result for the customer.

Too often, managers asking the same question are only interested in the result the sales person will get–knowing that it’s a $1M deal or ARR of $500K is all they care about.

But this question has real power–it’s something managers should be asking about every deal–not just one deals, but deals that are in the pipeline.

Perhaps variants to “What did you sell that for…,” might be “What are they buying that for….?”

The power of asking this is helping the sales person understand what the customer is trying to achieve and why it’s important to them.

The power of this type of question is that if forces the sales person to understand what the customer’s problem is, what they are trying to achieve,

Being able to answer this singe question in a substantive way requires the sales person to ask the customer the right questions–not just about needs and requirements, but about the problem, opportunity, and what the customer is trying to achieve.

Managers asking this question on every deal will start forcing behavioral changes with the sales people. It will force them to search for the answer in their conversations with customers. It will improve their ability to engage the customer in ways that are meaningful to the customer. It will improve their ability to create value with the customer.

Every executive and manager needs to make some variant of this question part of every conversation about deals.

“What are they buying this for…..?”

“What did you sell this for….?”