The Perfect Combination of Selling Skills

In sales, probing and listening are the perfect diet for salespeople who want to excel in this profession. The good news is that these are skill sets, which means they can be taught and learned.

This article was part of Industrial Distribution's May/June print issue. To view the full digital edition, click here.

“Me and Jenny goes together like peas and carrots.” — Forrest Gump

In sales, probing and listening are peas and carrots. These twin skill sets are the perfect diet for salespeople who want to excel in this profession. Our best practices study of top salespeople (those in the top 10 percent in their companies) found that probing and listening played a major role in their success. The good news is that these are skill sets, which means they can be taught and learned.

Probe your way to sales success. Successful salespeople invest 38 percent of their time during a sales call probing for customer needs. These same salespeople do not make product or service recommendations until 54 percent of the time on the call has elapsed. This means more than half of the call is spent studying customer needs. Contrast this with the ‘show-up and throw-up’ method of selling where the salesperson opens the call with a product pitch and presses for a close: The fi rst is about the customer; the second is about the salesperson.

Salespeople ask questions to discover customer needs; understand the buyer’s definition of value; build relationships; demonstrate a genuine concern for the buyer; and help buyers discover what they do not know. These tips will help you ask better questions.

When your probing objective is to discover needs, use open-ended questions. These begin with why, how, what, and tell me about… You want the other person to speak freely. Open-ended questions relax the buyer, as they create the context of an interview versus an interrogation. Closed-ended questions begin with which, when, who, and where. They limit the range of responses. Too many closed-ended questions sound like an interrogation. These examples demonstrate open-ended questions: 

  • Please tell me about your business.
  • What are your greatest challenges?
  • What do you look for in a solution?

Probe for pain. Pain motivates. People change when they are miserable enough in their current situation. Buying is change. Dig for areas that cause the buyer to feel uncomfortable and dissatisfied with the status quo. Oftentimes, buyers defend against pain because it hurts to discuss it. Who wants to admit to making a bad previous buying decision?

  • Please tell me about your current solution.
  • What experiences have you had with this?
  • What feedback do you hear when using this?

Probe for hope. If you dig for pain, you must follow up with a seed of hope with your next questions. Dig for ways the buyer would like to improve his or her situation. Provide an opportunity for the buyer to dream positively. The implication is that your solution can deliver on this hope.

  • If you could change or improve one thing about your current solution to better satisfy your needs, how would you improve it?
  • What would it mean if we could do this for you?

Asking questions demands another skill – listening. It is not enough to know the customer’s needs; you must understand these needs. This comes only from deep and patient listening. Deep and patient listening is immersing yourself fully into what the other person is saying. “When we want to understand something, we cannot just stand outside and observe it. We have to enter deeply into it and be one with it in order to really understand. If we want to understand a person, we have to feel his feelings, suffer his sufferings, and enjoy his joy.” (Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step) These ideas will help you to become a better listener:

Open your ears, eyes, mind, and heart. Hear, see, know, and feel what the buyer is saying. Full-sensory listening requires you to put the focus on the other person.

Practice patience. Listen as the other person unravels their problems for you. Unraveling is a process, not just reciting a shopping list. What’s the hurry – another call to make? Deep, patient listening encourages dialogue and openness. There is no need to finish a thought for the other person unless they are struggling. Be cautious that you do not become a competitive listener. This is an occupational hazard of sales. Competitive listeners listen for advantage. When they hear an opening, they strike quickly.

Listen on two levels – organizational and personal. Even the most technical sale includes personal issues for the buyer. Customers prefer to buy what they need from salespeople who understand what they want. What represents a personal win for the buyer?

Ironically, research has shown that listeners versus talkers are rated by peers as more influential. You can listen your way to success – one question at a time.

Tom Reilly is literally the guy who wrote the book on Value-Added Selling (McGraw-Hill, 2010). You may visit Tom online at

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