Writers know they should show and not tell because that will help readers understand and get involved with their story or content. For much the same reason, a publisher who wants to sell a book in large quantities to a nonretail corporate buyer should first ask about the prospective buyer rather than tell about the book. Instead of selling, use questions to get people to buy. There is a big difference.
“The more you tell, the less you sell” is axiomatic in the sales business. Corporate purchasing people do not care how much you know; they care how much you know about them. More specifically, they care about how your book can help them solve their problems. And the way you uncover their problems is by asking questions.
The kinds of questions you ask will change as the sales process progresses. At first, when you are gathering information, you should ask questions not to lead prospects but to find out where they want to go. During the next stage—presentation—you should structure questions to get people involved, to establish credibility, and to build rapport. And during the final stage, when you are negotiating a deal, you should design your questions to control the discussion and close the sale.
This article focuses on the first stage.
It’s About Help
When you visit doctors, they do not begin by telling you what is wrong with you. They ask questions to determine the problem and then decide how to treat it. Prescription before diagnosis is unacceptable in medicine, and that concept also applies to selling books to buyers in corporations, associations, and schools.
People who believe they have a one-of-a-kind product that everyone will find—or at least should find—enthralling have trouble mastering the art of asking questions. Their focus is on all the good things about a book, and on telling others about it.
If you might be one of those people, ask yourself a question. Does everybody go through their days thinking about their problems, or about my book? The answer is obvious. People are caught up in their own circumstances, and the best way to get their attention is to show how your content can help them.
You can tell people how good your book will be for them, but that does not mean they care, agree, or even believe you. As the well-known sales guru, author, and motivational speaker Brian Tracey has said, “Those convinced against their will, are of the same opinion still.” On the other hand, buyers are likely to be responsive to your pitch if you ask questions that lead them to understand why purchasing your book can help them achieve their goals. Then, as I have said, “Those convinced by what they say, will sell themselves and stay that way.”
When you ask questions that get buyers to think about your book in the context of their needs, they soon understand that your content can help them in some way, and they also begin to realize that you are there to help them, not simply to sell your books. That realization is the foundation for building relationships, trust, and sales.
Seven Sample Questions
So the first step is to discover what they want to accomplish. Meet with prospective buyers before you create your proposal for them. Set the stage for a nonconfrontational exchange of information that lowers prospects’ defenses. Start by saying something like: “There are some companies that could use my content in promotional campaigns, and some that cannot. My initial research indicates that you may be able to use it. May I ask you a few questions?”
Once you have permission, begin asking general questions to get your prospect talking. The answers will provide background information you will need later to deliver a more effective presentation and negotiate a larger order.
Here are a few examples of questions to ask.
If you could wave a magic wand, what would you want to accomplish? This is an excellent question to begin with because it is broad enough to let your prospect talk about overall and long-term objectives before getting down to current needs. The sales manager wants to increase sales; the marketing manager may want to introduce a new product into a new market; and the human resources manager may want to increase employee productivity or safety. Each requires different content in your proposal.
Have you ever used books as a promotional tool? The company may have no experience using books in marketing campaigns. In that case, your presentation should explain the benefits of using sales-promotional items and why books offer more benefits than other products do.
How would you describe the perfect sales promotion? This open-ended question works well to elicit prospects’ goals.
What is the typical decision-making process at your company? What is your budget period? Do you usually require a small quantity first for a test market? Do not ask these questions in rapid succession; ask them judiciously to stimulate a discussion. Your strategy and timetable must take account of a company’s way of working, and it may mean that you have to accommodate multiple presentations and decision points over the course of a year.
Who are the decision makers and influencers? As a general rule, the larger the company and the more people concerned with decisions to purchase, the longer it will take to close a deal. Find out who will be involved in making or influencing the final decision. Perhaps the sales manager you are talking with at a small company is the decision maker. But if you are proposing a marketing campaign involving 100,000 copies of your booklet or book, then people in purchasing and finance may have input into the decision to go ahead or not. The more you know about the people who will make or influence that decision, the more likely you are to get the order.
In your last promotion, what went right? What went wrong? What would you change, and why? Obviously, these questions are for people who have used products in sales promotions. You will probably find that most of your prospects have conducted promotional campaigns in the past. Some of those campaigns probably didn’t work as planned, so find out what your prospect sees as a successful campaign. Then you will be able to address past problems in your proposal by building safeguards in, and you will also be able to repeat whatever went smoothly in the past. In addition, knowledge of previous difficulties will help you counter objections that arise during negotiations.
If we were to start a promotional campaign today and look back a year from now, what would you want to have accomplished? Prospects usually reply to this question with a short list of objectives, which you can then address in your proposal.
Once you have uncovered each buyer’s needs, the proposal you write will form the basis of your presentation (see “Preparing for a Sales Presentation” in the January 2011 Independent), and that presentation will show how using your book in a promotional campaign can help solve the prospect’s problems.
The next article in this series will explain how to use questions strategically to give information during the presentation.
Brian Jud is the executive director of SPAN and the author of How to Make Real Money Selling Books. He offers commission-based sales of books to buyers in nonbookstore markets. To reach him: P.O. Box 715, Avon, CT 06001-0715; 860/675-1344; firstname.lastname@example.org; premiumbookcompany.com; twitter.com/bookmarketing.