Part three of this four-part series examines the echo question, the overstated question and the controversial question.

Some seldom-used question styles can help a salesperson change the customer’s way of looking at a situation.

So far in this series, I have examined four common types of questions and their uses during the selling situation - direct, rhetorical, overhead and leading questions. Now let’s discuss some less common - but equally powerful - ways to use questions to achieve your goals.

The types of questions described on the following pages are used less to obtain information than to affect a change in the customer’s way of thinking or feeling. You can use them to neutralize or eliminate objections, to defuse a highly charged emotional situation or to cause the customer to question his or her motives. Because they often address such issues as personal feelings and motives, these types of questions must be used sparingly and with extreme caution. Used incorrectly or too frequently, they will eventually raise suspicions, causing customers to believe (correctly) that you are resorting to gimmicks or you consider them easy to manipulate. As you might expect, such beliefs severely damage the customer’s trust and your credibility, not to mention your chances of success in getting the sale.

Although these questions are not necessarily "last resort" techniques, they are not substitutes for the application of good, basic selling skills or the need to inform and educate the customer by means of the kind of sales dialogue discussed earlier in this series. Think of them as additions to your expanding repertoire of techniques and tools that you can apply to unique selling situations as the need arises.

The echo question. Customers tend to raise objections about areas that directly concern them or about which they have an interest. For example, a materials manager would probably have little interest in a product’s installation procedures or servicing requirements, but he might be very concerned about delivery schedules, storage requirements and transportation modes. If he raises an objection during the selling situation, it will most likely pertain to one of the latter or related areas. If it’s only the two of you, you should treat it as you would any other objection by probing for details and then either overcoming the objection directly or, if that is not possible, by focusing on other benefits of equal or greater interest to the customer.

When you are making a presentation to a group of customers, however, even the simplest objection can lead to problems. If you do not overcome an objection quickly and effectively, your silence or delay might lead others present to amplify the objection or even to bring up additional objections. About the last thing you want to face is a barrage of simultaneous objections. To avoid this situation, you should consider using the echo question.

In many instances, the individual raising the objection is the most qualified and the most likely to have a solution. The echo question takes advantage of this fact by answering a question with a question. For example, suppose that during a meeting someone asks, "How can we be expected to handle all these additional inspection requirements?" You could respond with, "Good question, Ralph. You probably know more about your company’s inspection procedures than anyone else here. What do you think? Any suggestion on how to integrate these new requirements with your current procedures?"

Once again, through the use of a question, you shift the focus from problem to solution; instead of trying to force your solution on the customer, you involve him in the process and encourage a sense of ownership in the eventual result. In a group situation this approach also puts the spotlight on the individual best suited to address the issue and puts him with a suitable platform to display his knowledge. Notice too, that the question is not threatening. If anything, it is mildly flattering and appeals to his competence and experience.

The echo question has some dangers. For example, the customer who raises original objection might do so because he is truly looking for an answer. He might have no real knowledge of the subject addressed; he simply recognized a potential problem and asked question, expecting you to offer a solution. Using the echo question in this instance will yield nothing more than embarrassment for all concerned. You must be certain that the person you address has sufficient knowledge to address the question or, at the very least, knows enough to offer some preliminary suggestions. The solution? Know your customer.

Be careful too, of the use of flattery. In the above example, the remarks preceding the question are designed less to flatter than to indicate recognition of the customer’s competence to address the issue under discussion. Unless the customer has an exceptionally large and active ego, obvious flattery is transparent and will only cause those present to question your motives. The key here is how you compliment the customer. Offer the comments matter-of-factly as if they represent common knowledge, then quickly shift to the real issue - the problem and its solution. The words you use are important, but how you use them is critical.

Although the echo question can be an effective technique, its over use can cause you to appear uninformed. You usually have the answers to your customers’ concerns and can present them in terms they understand. You should reserve the echo question for those relatively rare situations when you need real input from the customer regarding his unique applications. Another case would be when an individual believes his or her specific problems and concerns have been ignored.

The overstated question. When a customer objects to an idea you are trying to get him to accept, you can try rephrasing his specific objection in a lightly exaggerated or overstated manner. For example, if he says, "You might be right, but I can see real problems convincing our customers that this will be to their advantage," you can respond with, "Oh? Do you think it will be impossible to convince them?" It is unlikely he will agree that it will be "impossible." When confronted by such an overstated question, the customer often waters down the original objection, giving you something you can work with. Use the overstated question:

- To force the customer to reevaluate his objection and approach a problem more realistically and positively, encouraging him to come up with an acceptable solution.

- To give yourself a less difficult objection or problem to overcome.

- To provide breathing room and time to think when confronted with the unexpected.

You do not want to embarrass the customer, so how you ask the question is important. Do not overstate the objection or perceived problem too much - just enough to force him to think about it objectively.

The controversial question. The controversial question is just that - controversial - and is as close to a last-resort technique as any you will ever use. Designed to shock the customer, it causes him to question his decision or the motives that brought it about. Because it addresses the customer’s motives and, out of necessity, must be asked rather bluntly, it can be threatening, even perceived as a personal attack. It is, therefore, a dangerous technique, and it should be used only when all else has failed. Do not use the controversial question simply because you can’t think of anything else to ask.

Yet, despite its dangers, the controversial question can be highly effective if you take some precautions before using it. Be certain that you: 1) Know the customer well enough to be reasonably confident of his reaction; and 2) Have nothing to lose because of the firm and seemingly irrevocable stand the customer has taken.

Remove all emotion, especially any trace of anger, from your voice and ask the question as one honestly perplexed. Some examples:

- "You mean to say that you’re not interested in improving your production facilities, in helping your business grow?"

- "You’re the leader in your industry, and yet you admit your new product has some real problems. How can you continue to lead if you don’t solve them?"

- "Your company prides itself on its reputation for quality products. Are you willing to jeopardize that reputation by not using the best materials?"

In each instance, you are throwing the gauntlet at the customer’s feet, so weigh carefully the long-term effects of such questions. You might convince the customer now, but over time very negative reactions can set in. In some instances, these reactions occur immediately and destroy any chance you might have had. You also risk the customer losing face in your presence, so the gains you offer had better be extremely attractive.

It is also worth noting that by using the controversial question, you are, in effect, admitting that you have failed to sell the customer through more conventional means and have no other recourse. Be sure, therefore, to weigh the potential dangers against the probability of success if you simply walk away, review your strategy and approach the account differently at a later date.

The scare tactic. Although not explicitly a type of question, the scare tactic often involves the use of questions. When you and the customer have a strong disagreement, his objections are often rooted in a fear that if he follows your advice, it will:

- Cost him money; that is, he perceives the values you offer as not proportional to the cost.

- Make him look bad to others, those whose opinions he values. These people might be his peers in the industry, his boss or top management, his employees - virtually anyone, depending on the particular customer.

- Make life difficult by causing inconveniences, additional work, tough decisions or an internal selling job that he would just as soon avoid. This motivation is often hard to identify because few of us want to admit openly that we are unwilling to work hard for a desirable goal.

- Threaten his values, his opinion of himself or his psychological security.

This is perhaps the most personal of all motivations, and to attack someone’s values (knowingly or not) is often perceived as a personal attack.

- Decrease his power, authority, responsibility or control over others (even over you!)

When someone resists because of one or more of these personal fears, you really have only two strategies available: 1. Overcome the fear by showing the tremendous benefits he can realize; benefits important to him as an individual or; 2. Pose a greater fear by emphasizing the losses he will sustain if he makes the wrong decision.

Often you want the customer to think twice before making a speedy decision, especially if this decision is likely to go against your interests. Fear of the results of a bad decision can result in delay, thereby giving you the time you need to either educate the customer or bring about a change in attitude.

Fear can also force a decision. Customers often procrastinate or act undecided when the real problem is a fear of the consequences of making the wrong decision. You can overcome this fear by offering overwhelming proof, testimonials, guarantees and other forms of assurances. Doing so can both relieve the fear and lead to action.

If this approach proves impractical or if you suspect it won’t work with a specific customer, you can try posing an even greater fear. Just be sure to address only those areas that represent legitimate concerns to the customer; otherwise, they have little impact or will be seen as manipulative tactics on your part. For example:

"I understand your concern, Helen, but if you wait until next year your repair costs will be even higher. And if it needs a major overhaul, it could be out of service for several weeks. How do you think your production people would react to that?"

"Bill, if you give this business out before I’ve had a chance to speak with my management, it could be a very expensive decision. Are you willing to accept that?" In each instance, the prospect of the problem (the fear you want to instill) is tempered by the prospect of success if the other person makes the decision you are recommending. If you simply resort to fear without offering an acceptable alternative, you will fail. This fear you pose, however, must be perceived as both real and likely by the other person.

Next month, the last article of this series will offer specific tips on using questions in the selling situation.