how to ask those hard questions in media sales

It’s always a good idea to manage expectations up front.
Farm Security Administration dentist reassures migrant child who is making her first visit to a dentist. FSA dental trailer at the FSA camp for farm workers. Caldwell, Idaho, 1941. Russell Lee, photographer.Library of Congress.

I recently had to make an unplanned visit to my dentist. As I am a self-diagnosed dental-phobe, the impending visit was going to be traumatic. I knew he would look at my chart and see when I was last in (too long ago) and ask me questions I didn’t want to answer like, “How often do you floss?” (not often enough). But, as I had a piece of broken tooth in my hand, there was no getting out of it.

My dentist did ask me those uncomfortable questions. He wanted to know about my oral health, but also asked to take my blood pressure (it tends to go up when I am sitting in his chair) and inquired about my insurance coverage. As he was poking with his instruments, he continually told me what was going on while asking his assistant to make notes on my chart. When he was drilling during the inevitable root canal, he kept checking with me to make sure I was alright with the process.

I didn’t want to be in the position of holding a chunk of my enamel in my hand, nor did I want to answer his questions, especially since most of the answers weren’t pretty! But before, during, and after the procedure, we chatted and laughed about common interests. I really like this guy, and recommend him highly to all of my friends. I don’t always like what he has to do, but when I am in his chair, he is all about ME and really cares about my well-being. He asks those hard questions because he wants to determine the best procedures for me and to give me sound oral health advice.

We in media sales need to be more like my dentist.

Last week I discussed why it is important to ask your clients hard questions. It positions you as a marketer and partner, and you will come up with a better solution for your client. It all sounds easy, but we know from experience in media sales that it isn’t. But there are ways to make it easier:

  • Prepare all levels of questions. Do your homework so you are not asking how many locations they have or what their slogan is. You can find that information on their website. Instead, prepare open-ended questions – ones that require more than yes-or-no answers – to spark conversation. Know that you are going to have to determine who their best customer is, what customers are shopping for when in the market for their product or service, what their competitors have that they don’t have and vice-versa, and how much a new customer is worth to them. This information will come from well-crafted questions, which might take more than one appointment to ascertain.
  • Warm up to the really hard stuff. Just like you wouldn’t approach someone attractive and ask them right off the bat if they want to make out, don’t scare off your potential customer by opening with your most probing question. Lead in with “softball” questions. These are often the only ones your competitors ask. These are the how-did-you-get-into-this-business and who-is-your-main-competition types of questions. You need this information too, but you will get better answers if you build up trust and work on building a relationship through your questions. One warning: be sincere in your interest. A prospect can tell if you are trying to get to know them just so you can find ways to sell them, rather than trying to gather information in order to help them.
  • Manage expectations. Tell your clients what you are going to do (“I may be asking some questions that require some business introspection”) and why (“I would only be guessing at a solution to your marketing problems if I didn’t have all of the facts before determining a course of action.”) Ask them to reserve a set amount of time and to please avoid distractions, as the answers to these questions will impact the health of their business. Be clear that this will be a different experience, as you are going to help them with their marketing, as opposed to selling them time.
  • Don’t be uncomfortable. Like my dentist, you need to know what has happened that has affected their situation before you can decide the best course of action to fix it. The information you are trying to get is factual. Take any emotion out of your questioning to inspire confidence.
  • Listen to their answers and take notes. Listening will spark other deep questions that will help you uncover the information you need. If you don’t listen and build on the answers, your client will feel like you are wasting their time, as if the conversation is only about your agenda of getting answers to your list of questions, rather than really finding out about them and their business. Again, think about that potential date – you wouldn’t rapid-fire questions without evidence that you are being listened to. If you do, they will be sure to see that “friend across the room” and excuse themselves from your interrogation. If you have a CRM system, record your notes at the end of the day. You will be amazed how you will either forget or rewrite a client’s story if you don’t take notes and refer back to them to keep on track.

Your goal should be to help businesses increase their bottom lines. If you do that, renewals will follow. You must have in-depth information in order to become a marketing partner with your clients. Don’t be afraid of this process if you want to stand out in the media sales crowd and work with customers you care about.

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