Asking your customers questions is a great way to have them build trust in you.
By Carole Mahoney
I shared how being mindful and in the present moment helps us to be better listeners so that we can then ask better questions in my previous column (“Actively Listening,” August 2022).
Another reason that active listening and asking great questions is critical in sales is because it is how we build trust with others.
Trust is a funny thing, isn’t it? It’s fleeting. That is because it is a feeling, and feelings happen because of the chemicals in our brains.
When we open ourselves up to trust, it makes us feel warm, welcome, and safe—all due to the explosions of feel-good dopamine chemicals in the caudate nucleus, the pleasure center of our brains.
And in the reverse, when we are afraid and don’t trust, we feel disconnected, hesitant, and alone. These chemicals live in our “reptilian brain” called the amygdala. We freeze up, can’t think, and certainly can’t take action to move forward. It’s fight or flight time.
All our relationships and encounters are impacted by our biology of beliefs and emotions. We describe it as chemistry, and that is exactly what trust is—chemistry.
Talking About Ourselves
How we act creates these chemicals in others and forms deep connections in our brains. This chemistry can either work for you or against you, depending on how you make people feel trust.
A group of neuroscientists at Harvard discovered in 2012 that we spend 40% of our daily interactions talking about our own thoughts, opinions, and ideas, and when we do, our brains are flooded with dopamine. Despite being offered money to talk about something else, most of the study participants chose to continue talking about themselves.
You know someone like that too, don’t you? That person, who always talks about themself, what they are doing, what they think about, anything. We don’t always like or trust that person, do we?
This means when your buyers do most of the talking, the pleasure center of trust is activated, and they will be more likely to trust you. Simple.
But it’s not that easy because to do so means you have to resist your own brain’s desire to also talk all about yourself. This is especially hard to do when you are a subject matter expert.
It’s not too hard to get anyone to talk about themself; all you have to do is listen and ask a few targeted questions about them and they are off to the races.
But most of us don’t do that. In my work coaching and training sales teams, I use data from Objective Management Group which have evaluated more than 2.2 million sales professionals on 21 different sales-specific competencies.
One of those competencies is consultative selling, which is primarily based on the ability to actively listen and ask a lot of good questions.
Learning to actively listen and ask good questions is a skill you can easily learn when you want to up your game.
Out of the 2.2 million sales professionals, how many do you think are good at it? Just 14% of salespeople today are good at actively listening and asking good questions. Can you imagine if the accounting industry had 86% who couldn’t do math?
The good news is that unlike math (for me anyway), learning to actively listen and ask good questions is a skill you can easily learn when you want to up your game.
It Takes Practice
In the early days of my own business, I had to up my game and did so by hiring a sales coach. On group coaching calls, I would often hear others complain that they didn’t have any prospects to talk to in order to practice asking questions, to which the coach said, “Do you live under a rock? Practice with everyone around you!”
Which is exactly what I did. My poor husband.
At the end of most days, Steve would come home, greet the dog, grab a couple beers, and trek down the stairs to my home office and announce that it was “break time.”
We would then share stories about our days, talk about the things that ticked us off or made us laugh. He would tell me about issues at work, and I would say, “You should do this, this, and then this.”
Steve would get annoyed with me. “You have no idea what it’s like there. This isn’t like the cool smart techies you like to work with. You don’t understand what this guy was like; that ain’t gonna happen.”
Which of course got my Irish up, as my nana would say, and made me annoyed and snippy.
Until I changed things up. After that coaching session, when Steve vented about work, I let him. I paused and I asked him, “Has it always been this way?” “Huh, yeah. They won’t ever change.” So, I asked him another question, and then another.
No judgment, just curiosity.
I knew it was working when instead of shooting me down or giving me the “Yup, yes dear” putoff, he said, “Hmmm, I hadn’t thought of that before.”
Wow, this stuff works!
That was enough to get me to practice on everyone I encountered. The grocery clerk, the mail lady, my Uber driver. I often found myself getting life stories from complete strangers, or in the case of one Uber driver, having them ask me for career advice.
It wasn’t hard to think of the questions. All I was doing was listening to what they said and the next questions to learn more came naturally.
What I didn’t realize then is that I was learning to actively listen, and that is what made the difference. My family turned it into a regular game and called it questions and periods. Before long we turned it into a New Year’s Eve drinking game!
The goal of the game is to answer every question with another question. But it can’t be any question; it has to be relevant to the question the person asked, which means you have to be carefully listening. For example, if someone asks, “What time is it?” you can’t respond with “What’s the weather like today?” but you could ask, “Don’t you have a watch?”
Whoever replies to the question with a statement or a period at the end loses. In our New Year’s Eve game that means you have to drink a shot.
Try it out yourself on everyone around you (no shots required). When you start actively listening and asking questions about what they say, you will notice, as I did with my husband, that the nature of your conversations will change.
When you do, you may notice that your customers who are stressed out, snippy, and upset start to change how they feel and behave towards you.
Carole Mahoney, as the founder of Unbound Growth, has coached Harvard Business School Entrepreneurial MBA students on sales and been featured as a top sales coach by Ambition and Sales Hacker. You can contact her directly at www.unboundgrowth.com.