How can I better understand my customer?

The better we understand customers’ needs the better we are able to position our capabilities and build value in how we can meet those needs. We know that to understand “needs” we need to ask questions. But we can get stuck on what type of questions to ask and when to ask them.

In working with one of my clients, a storage solutions business, we addressed this area whilst role-playing the execution of the strategic sales approach we have been developing

Typically, in this exercise, participants will fall into the trap of asking “closed questions” not that a closed question is a bad question, but only when you know what the answer is, or you don’t mind what the answer is, or in the circumstance where you are asking what I call the “Hybrid Question”.

What’s a Hybrid Question?

The Hybrid question is a combination of “open” and “closed” questions. It can serve to soften a question that may be sensitive and may otherwise elicit a “knee-jerk” response that doesn’t provide much insight into client needs.

For example:

“Do you mind if I ask why you….?” (“Do you mind if I ask” is the “closed portion”,” Why you..” is the commencement of the “open” portion)

In the role play exercise with my client the utilization of the “Hybrid” question played out as follows.

Q: What are your consideration around the timing of implementation? (Open leading question)

A: I need racking to installed by 30th September

then followed by….

Q: Do you mind if I ask why the 30th of September is important to you (Hybrid question)

A: We have 3 containers landing and will have to utilise a 3rd party storage facility at great cost if we don’t complete on time. (better insight is gained)

It can be most effectively used as a follow-up question to get greater depth of understanding, and in asking, it is often possible to slip past the front of the head response into a deeper and meaningful understanding of the customer’s “real needs”, often with a greater emotional context.

The customer is more inclined to answer honestly because we have asked them for permission to ask the question in the first place, and subconsciously people are wired to want to help. It is rare that someone will respond to the closed part of the question at all.

I find it most effective to ask “do you mind if I ask” as a preface to a “why” question. The reason being is that from an early age we are conditioned to respond cautiously or defensively to “why’ questions as we tend to feel we are under attack. So, asking for permission to ask a “why” is a good way to overcome the hard wiring.

Give it a go

Try incorporating into your next discussion with a potential customer. Please let me know how you go, or if you don’t decide to try it – do you mind if I ask you why not..?