How to Find Out What Software Your Customer Really Needs

By Geoffrey James

One of the biggest challenges for software sales reps is finding out what kind of software customers really need. The only way to do this is to ask your customer contacts questions. Many reps, however, are more comfortable talking about software features and functions than doing the groundwork to find out how that software can help satisfy customers’ needs. Here are six rules that can help you focus on the all-important task of discovering your customers’ software needs before you make a presentation.

Rule #1. Plan your questioning beforehand. Always take a few minutes prior to a sales call to plan out the types of questions you’re going to ask. Review your relationship with the customer and identify gaps in your understanding of the customer’s computing infrastructure, software purchasing patterns and overall business direction. Then decide the general areas in which you’re going to pursue questions.

Rule #2. Target your questions appropriately. There are six lines of inquiry that can help you understand exactly where your customer might need new software.

  1. What is the current state of the customer’s business?
  2. What is the desired state of the customer’s business?
  3. What challenges prevent the customer’s business from moving from 1 to 2 above?
  4. Which business and personal motivators influence the final decision?
  5. What resources, authority and budget can be committed to move the company from 1 to 2?
  6. What has been tried in the past that failed to move the company from 1 to 2?

Rule #3. Conduct a conversation, not an inquisition. It’s a mistake to try to extract too much information too fast. Instead get answers to your lines of inquiry over the course of a series of meetings. For new accounts, strive to find out as much as the customer will tell you. For existing accounts, pick one or two lines of inquiry and set a goal to get good answers for at least one of them.

Rule #4. Don’t rehearse your questions. While you should have a clear idea of the types of questions you’re going to ask, you don’t want them to sound canned and rehearsed. Rather than writing out entire questions, prior to the meeting write on your notepad some keywords that will remind you of the general line of inquiry you want to pursue.

Rule #5. Really listen to the customer. Software sales reps are goal oriented and thus prefer conversations that move quickly. It’s a big mistake, however, to spend valuable face-time watching the customer’s mouth move while you formulate what you’re going to say next. Instead, really listen to the customer, pause to think about what the customer said and then decide where you want to conversation to go.

Rule #6. Ask leading questions in the abstract. Sales reps often are taught to ask questions such as: Have you ever thought about installing a CRM system to increase sales? Rather than asking leading questions, couch your questions in neutral and abstract terms that allow the customer room to give you the information you need. For example: In a perfect world, what would your software vendor be doing to help you increase sales?

The above is based on a conversation with W. Wayne Turmel, director of faculty for Communispond, a training firm whose clients include almost two thirds of the Fortune 500.