Buyer-First Selling: Ask, Listen, and Diagnose Before You Prescribe

By Julie Thomas, President & CEO, ValueSelling Associates
An image of two hands, one holding a number of question marks, and the other holding light bulbs.

When does the sales cycle end?

Many sales professionals believe that a signed purchase order is the be-all and end-all of the sales process. However, in the buyer’s mind, a signed purchase order is the beginning – a tentative step toward the ultimate goal: value realization.

That’s the essential element of both buyer-first and value-based selling: elevating interactions above the transactional and focusing on building long-term relationships with buyers to enable their success.

To forge these long-term relationships, your sellers will need to present themselves as credible, authentic, and trustworthy experts who connect on a human level. 

And, as any good problem solver knows, that means asking the right questions, using active listening, and gathering all the information necessary for a diagnosis before prescribing the cure. 

Step One: Ask

Top performers know that discovery is an ongoing process – every sales conversation is an opportunity to improve their understanding of a potential buyer’s needs.

To uncover business value that motivates action, sellers must use strategic questioning techniques to elevate the conversation and focus on key business objectives:

  • Ask open-ended questions to get the prospect talking and gain invaluable insights into their world.
  • Lead the buyer on a journey of self-discovery with probing questions that are designed to elicit a yes-or-no response and reveal top priorities.
  • Summarize and validate the information shared with confirming questions.

The power of this formula lies in learning to switch between question types to identify a business driver that your solution will impact in a meaningful way. 

Encourage your sales team to prepare 5-10 open-ended and probing questions that will help them identify problems on the prospect’s radar, how those issues impact the business, and unique solutions your company can provide. 

Remember: To authentically connect, salespeople must ditch the script. The above exercise is designed to help them thoroughly prepare for conversations with prospects – freeing them to place all their attention on the other person. 

Step Two: Listen

The world’s best business conversation will net sellers next to nothing if they don’t master active listening. 

Active listening means you’re listening to understand instead of listening to respond. When done well, it conveys empathy, instills trust, and builds rapport. In B2B sales, this has three main benefits:

  • Rapport: People do business with people they like – and everyone likes being listened to. A solid rapport is a powerful tool for closing business: Our latest research shows that “maintaining rapport with buyers” is the most essential element when the sales cycle reaches the negotiation stage. 
  • Control: In virtual selling, you must maximize every communication opportunity. When all your attention is focused on the business conversation – instead of your pitch – you’re able to adjust tactics on the fly to steer the conversation and uncover critical business issues.
  • Trust: B2B purchases can profoundly impact a buyer’s career. No buyer – especially an executive-level buyer – puts their career’s health in the hands of someone they do not trust. 

Step Three: Diagnose Before You Prescribe

Let’s do a brief thought experiment. 

Imagine you hurt your back golfing, so you visit your doctor. Instead of a thorough examination, he talks over you and dives into an explanation of the incredible benefits of a gluten-free diet. 

Let me guess: You leave and look for a new doctor, right? 

Admittedly, the example is a bit outrageous – but it has happened. And is it really that different than when salespeople try to share all the features of a product/service before understanding the potential buyer’s business challenges? 

Winning more business always begins with a mutual understanding of the problems worth solving. This means looking beyond “the pain” to identify the underlying condition and how it impacts key business goals. For a $400,000 toothache, my $100,000 aspirin is an excellent deal; and, if the toothache only does $55,000 worth of damage, my $100,000 aspirin is absurd. 

This is why sales managers must work with their teams to ensure sellers gather as much information as possible before recommending any solution.

For a complete understanding of the behaviors sales professionals must exhibit to put the buyer first and succeed in a virtual environment, download a copy of our latest research: The Behaviors and Skills Sales Leaders Care Most About – and How to Measure Them.