Using better sales questions to personalize the customer experience

15 min read

Deb Calvert is the President of People First Productivity Solutions. She was named by Treeline as one of “The 65 Most Influential Women in Business” and consistently appears on lists of Top Sales Influencers and Thought Leaders. She has worked as a leadership program architect, sales productivity specialist, and researcher for over 20 years.

Her unique mix of senior-level Sales, Human Resources, and Operations experience gives her valuable insight and the ability to understand the challenges faced by companies and senior leaders. Deb is a top sales & leadership speaker for organizations and industry events.


Key Takeaways

  • Customers don’t just want customer service anymore, they are expecting a full-on experience. They want something relevant, meaningful, and personalized version. 
  • One of the missing pieces that a lot of salespeople don’t realize is that the very best customer experience is when the customers get to participate in creating what they want.
  • When a great customer experience that’s ongoing, it translates into customer loyalty.
  • Three important factors that prevent sellers from asking quality questions,
    • Buyers don’t think that the salespeople are asking quality questions.
    • The salespeople think asking quality questions will take too much time.
    • We have been told that asking questions is rude or intrusive.
  • People don’t ask better questions because they have never been taught.
  • Indications that the salesperson thinks he is asking the right questions,
    • Any indication that the salesperson makes the buyers pause reflect and go deeper than they typically do.
  • Steps involved in personalizing questions to creating a better customer experience,
    • Active Listening
    • Researching the buyer’s background
    • Making it look like personal instead of a sale
  • How do salespeople use questions to stimulate the potential client’s interest?
    •   By asking better questions, thought-provoking questions, and questions that leave people dangling that they wanna engage more.
  • Difference between quality questions and standard questions:
    • Instead of asking questions to make a sale or appointment, ask questions to know the buyer’s needs.
  • The assessment should be converted from Diagnostic type to Dialogic(two way) type.
  • On a discovery call, a salesperson should check the intention of the individual whom he/she is speaking to. That makes the whole process easier and more successful. 

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Transcript of the podcast:

Speaker: Deb Calvert 

Host: Vivekanandan Sivasubramanian

Vivek: Welcome to another episode of Limitless Podcast. A place where we bring together a group of leaders in sales and my name is Vivek and I’ll be your host today. We have an amazing guest with us. She’s one of the most influential women in sales. We have Deb Calvert the President of People First Productivity Solutions. Hello Deb. 

Deb: Hello Vivek. It’s really a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much for hosting me today. 

Vivek: Thank you so much for joining in today. I’m really excited to have your before that to tell a bit about Deb Calvert, Deb is the President of People First Productivity Solutions. People First specializes in improving sales productivity leadership development and enhancing team effectiveness. She’s also the founder of Sales Expert channel. Deb has over 30 years of experience in sales. So, she’s the right person to tell you what worked twenty years back will not work now. And, she has seen the entire transition. She’s also the author of the book Discover Questions and many others. Deb is the recipient of numerous awards and honors. For 5 years in a row, that is from 2014 to 2018, she’s been named one of the top 50 sales and marketing influencers. She’s one of the most Innovative sales bloggers and there are dozens of those. If you are a sales professional then Deb Calvert is the person you must follow .

Hi Deb, it would be great if you could tell us a bit about yourself. The work you do at People First and a quick glimpse into your career.  

Deb: Well, I started this company 15 years ago. We’re coming up on our 15-year anniversary and the really hard three parts of the business, as you said team effectiveness leadership development and sales productivity, but what’s important for people to know is that those three things are not as different as they sound. What they all have in common where they overlap is that they’re about getting people connected and so all the work that I do the research that I do what I write about is how to make better connections whether it’s buyers to sellers or leaders to followers or team members to each other. 

And as sales people know, you’re really doing all three at the same time all the time. So there’s a great deal of overlap. 

Vivek: Today. We are going to speak with Deb about a very specific topic but nevertheless, it’s a very important one. It’s about using better sales questions to personalize the customer experience. To set the context of recently, I came across a study by the company called Gon Ohio the revenue intelligence. So what they did was they analyzed millions of cold calls and came up with some interesting findings. It’s one such findings, when they analyzed the successful cold calls against the unsuccessful cold calls. They had a duration of less than three minutes and 40 seconds. Whereas when they looked at the most successful cold calls they lasted over 5 minutes and 50 seconds. When they dug deeper to see what helped reps to have better conversation or longer, one key element that stood out there was these reps have asked better questions for the right one. 

Asking better questions can make a world of difference. In fact, it is not just confined to phone calls. So that is what we want to talk about today using better sales questions to personalize the customer experience. Okay here goes the first question. So you said that asking better questions improves the customer experience. What do you mean by the phrase customer experience? 

Deb: Well, that is really important. So, you know customers no longer want just Customer service that And we won’t get anywhere if we don’t provide good customer service, but the standard has been raised customers now want a full experience. They want something that’s relevant and meaningful and personalized to them. So a customer experience or CX as it’s often called is about every single touchpoint whether it’s online, and it comes to your website or if they got a cold call and they’re working with perhaps your Business Development rep or it’s that you have had a long term relationship with that customer but every time you have an interaction with them all of that every single time that there’s a touch point that is a part of the customer experience and buyers have all become very demanding when it comes to what’s involved in that customer experience. 

And that reason for that is that they have so many other options and as consumers not just in business. This is staying in the space of business-to-consumer. The experience is increasingly personalized and it’s increasingly thoughtful about what the customer wants. So here’s the most important thing I would say about a customer experience. It’s one of the missing pieces that a lot of sales people don’t realize is that the very best customer experience is when the customer gets to participate in creating what they want. It’s not that you went away and did really good service for them and then brought something back to them. Instead, it’s that you worked with them. They got to collaborate, they get to put their own imprint their own thoughts and their own feelings into that solution and when you To take that when you allow your customer to be involved in the experience of creating what they want of influencing the final product or at least that the terms of the for the delivery of it. When you allow them to do that that in customers minds is not just an experience but its value its value creation that makes it really difficult for them to say no to what you’re offering. So that’s why it’s so important and I’m glad that we’ve defined it first. 

Vivek: So as you said in fact a couple of years back, people would assume the customer experience or customer satisfaction begins after, once the purchase is made. However, what you said was it is not the case. The moment, the very first touch point when the customer in interacts with your website or your company. The journey begins right there. 

Deb: Even as they’re developing awareness and interest in what you offer, they’re going to have the emotional reaction to it and to the thought of doing business with you and your company. Experience has to be positive right from the beginning. 

Vivek: What the benefits of offering a better customer experience? 

Deb: Well, it’s the obvious ones. First of all, you’ll differentiate yourself from the competition. The more relevant, meaningful and personalized you can make that experience the more you can involve the customer. The more differentiated you are and the harder it is for them to say no to you. And this is true the first time that you sell to them but also every time when there’s a great customer experience and that’s ongoing it’s plates into customer loyalty and some research by cool ski who’s one of the leaders in the field of customer experience his research says that 87 percent of customers are willing to pay more when they have a great. Text so we can make a business case for customer experience very easily. 

Vivek: So let’s dive into the topic now. How would asking better questions accomplish what you are describing.

Deb: First of all, there are really only two ways to create the customer experience. You could spend a lot of money. Wining and dining and catering to each and every customer or prospect that you have and that’s time consuming and expensive. So not feasible. The only alternative to that is to create an experience to get them involved to get them feeling like it’s personalized and meaningful. 

The only other way that I can possibly imagine to do that is by asking quality questions. Quality questions that engage them in the conversation, quality questions that stimulate thought provoke thought that they haven’t had before, quality questions that create a two-way dialogue because a two-way give-and-take dialogue is all by itself in experience. And, you know, sign a bit of research from the book Stop Selling and Start Reading, that one is where we interviewed B2B buyers about what they wanted from sellers and the number one behavior the most important behavior, although they liked all 30 of the ones we asked about the one that buyers preferred above all others is that there be a two-way dialogue with the salesperson. So buyers want this and they view it as but as let me roll it up like this and say the bottom line is that people don’t ask better questions because they’ve never been taught it’s more than just make it open-ended certainly that helps but there’s so much more about sequence and purposefulness of your questions that people could improve.

Vivek: So, if I’m a sales rep and I’ve been doing this for say five to six years. If I want to evaluate myself, how can I know that if I’m asking the right questions, is there any indicator? 

Deb: Yes, one of the best indicators and it’s the best compliment people ever give me and that is when somebody pauses after you ask a question and they’re thoughtful, you can see that they’re thinking and then they say, “Well Vivek, that’s a really good question”. As soon as you hear that, you know, you’re on the right track or something like it if people say that you’re making me really think or if people say I never thought about that before any indicator that you’ve made them pause and reflect and go a little bit deeper than they typically do that’s when you know, you’re on the right track. Otherwise, they’re just firing quick answers at you because they already knew and now it’s just if they already know it’s doing you a favor to give you the information as opposed to a true two-way dialogue.

Vivek: You also talk about personalizing the questions to create a better customer experience. Could you please elaborate on that a bit?

Deb: To personalize means that you have to listen. And, when you listen you’re going to pick up on tone of voice or inflection, you’ll notice the pauses or the hesitations. And, when you do, you have a rich opportunity to personalize. You might be able to say something like I noticed that there was a little bit more there that you sounded like you almost wanted to say tell me more about that what’s what’s really going on here, right if you have the trust built. Or maybe you just can use research that you’ve done. So instead of asking things like when did your business open? You can say I researched notice that you opened your business in 2014, tell me more about that? What led to your decision to do that? I’m interested in your origin story. 

So whenever people are talking about themselves instead of talking just facts and figures or generically that’s personal. 

Vivek: So one of the common things we see in sales script, me being a part of our marketing team, whenever I interact with my sales team, the common problem that I’ve seen them facing is I have reached out to the prospect or the client, but I have no response. I had an initial call, it went well but I couldn’t get them to respond again. What do you think is the problem there using the way of asking better questions, how can I go about solving it? 

Deb: Let’s face it. None of us take time to email back or call back if we’re not interested. We’re not interested in the product. We’re not interested in the conversation. We’re not interested in the person.But we will call back or right back to somebody if we’re interested. So your real question is how do we use questions to stimulate someone’s interest. And better questions, thought provoking questions that leave people dangling in suspense. They want to know more, they want to engage more, those kinds of questions are of higher value and they earned the right to have a callback for him an email back. 

Vivek: If you don’t mind putting, please give us some examples of this difference between quality questions in standard questions? 

Deb: I actually used to teach a class at Berkeley University of California, Berkeley and Group of SDRs and BDRs who I gave the assignment to use to discover questions. That’s my first book and they’re eight purposes of questions there. But I give them an assignment to develop and test questions on cold calls and cold emails to see which one’s work. So I tell you that because the examples it’ll give you our field tested and I didn’t write them. 

But they really did work. So in a few of the examples it was Somebody had sampled a piece of content. Let’s say it’s your company. Somebody had listened to a podcast like this or had picked up an instructional video and the company was tracking and then turning those leads over to the SDR team. And those folks were then calling up now what they used to say what most organizations have their sales development reps say is something like – Hey, I noticed that you watched our video. How can I help you? And they don’t use their questions to bridge the gap between there was some kind of Interest there’s a reason somebody watch this and maybe there’s an opportunity so questions that they would ask in place where things like what is it that caused you to be interested in this topic about using questions to open more sales? Or what is it that caused you to download this piece of content from our website? What did you like about the content? What else do you need? What would be a natural follow-up for you? 

Instead of talking about making the sale or setting the appointment it’s about talking about the buyer’s need and the buyers interest. Let’s get back to the beginning and align ourselves with where the buyer is instead of trying to push the accelerator to some place. They’re not ready to go yet and questions give you those opportunities.

Vivek: Brilliant! This is something I personally favor. We could say exactly mention someone listen to the podcast or webinar. Okay. How do I make the transition? Okay, listen to this and often the directly switch to the pitch and you lose your audience there. 

Deb: Yes, it is. It’s about it’s about being more natural in buying and selling. We sometimes forget the relationship or the progression of any conversation. It should stay natural. We get lost in our effort to just try to close the appointment or close the sale. 

Vivek: So what else catches sellers learn about asking quality  questions? what resources can you offer?

Deb: There are lots of resources. I hope people come to my website and take a look at the weekly blog or sign up to the newsletter or read the book or take the online training course and discover questions, all of these are available. But let me just give a higher level recommendation. I like people to begin to think of their discovery process even before you open. To think at the very beginning of the exchange with the customer as an experience you’re going to give the customer. 

And then reframe what you’re going to do when you assess their needs instead of making it diagnostic which is what needs assessment or discovery processes are right now. We’re just asking enough questions to diagnose a problem and write the prescription to solve the problem. 

So I’d like you to think about shifting from a diagnostic needs assessment to a dialogic needs assessment dialogic two-way exchange. We’re both involved, we’re in it together. We’re going to class great to talk about your situation and co-create the solution and that is a game changer when people can use questions to do that.

Vivek: So one more thing I wanted to ask is in your book ‘Discover Questions’, you talk about 8 discrete purposes for asking questions. It would be great if you can just give a glimpse of what a short version of what they are or what the book is about?  

Deb: That book is based on 25 years of field research with buyers interviewed buyers after they had been talked with after they spent time with sellers who were trained in discover questions. And of course, I also observe the sellers before and after they were taught about discover questions. 

So 25 years worth of research over 10,000 sales calls and sales people learn about 8 purposes of asking questions discovers an acronym each letter stands for different type of questions. Research says that most sellers use only three or four out of those eight purposes the ones they must typically use ‘D’ for data. They gather facts. They often ask the same question that’s for consequences or pain point and that usually do ask the ‘O’ question, which is outcomes the hopes dreams plans with visions of the future that the buyer would like but that means that there are five other kinds of questions that people typically aren’t asking, missing out a lot of information those other five types of questions help you be more purposeful and also more efficient so that you can be more effective. 

I’ll just give you one of them would have probably not a time for all five. But my favorite one the one that I see making the biggest difference to buyers is the ‘V’ that’s a value question and it’s what I mentioned earlier. It’s about understanding the motivations. The reason this is important and how important it is relative to all your other needs. What’s the hierarchy of value? How important is this? How urgent is this and you can gain a great deal of insight plus bond emotionally with your buyer just by asking value questions. 

Vivek: This is the question I want to ask. If I am a sales rep I go on the first discovery call or initial call with my client. What is that I should expect to learn about the prospect by the end of the call. 

Deb: That’s a great question. I hope that you will learn more than their business needs. That’s probably the standard answer that most sales managers would give is learn about their needs so that you can create a solution. But I would say that the other thing that’s very important to learn is what’s in it for that individual not just the business needs but their individual needs is that their esteem and the company, is it one of their key performance indicators that are going to be measured on this, is that just a nuisance to them? And they really want to get it off their plate or is it not that important at all? It’s just something that they feel like they have to check off their list. They can say that with the salesperson move on. Yeah you need to know what’s their motivation and when you know that you can respond to it appropriately and find out what your next step should be.

Vivek: Deb, before you go, I would like to ask you a few questions on the rapid fire basis. Whose content do you follow LindenIn or any other pieces?

Deb: There are so many people. There are 76 people in the Sales Experts Channel and 2020 this year. And, I follow all 76 of them. I also follow people in women sales Pros because I know many of the sales leaders who were there in the incredible part that they have the desire they have to give to the sales community. So between those two there’s about a hundred people that I follow and I recommend if people really want to follow them, go to the websites for women 

Vivek: So everyone the link to and Deb’sLinkedIn profile, as you know, all other links where you can follow her are provided in the description. So feel free to check it out. 

The next one is what is the book you would recommend?

Deb: I am a big reader and there are a lot of very very good books out there. I really like when the Chad Burmeister put out last year. It’s about Ai and selling that’s a great book. George Bronson has a new one that’s coming out and Anita Nelson’s book for anybody who has missed that. I’ve been really interested in Ai. And so it’s about beating the bots and how to keep the human element in selling alongside. Chad Burmeister is about using Ai. Those two are very nice and complement each other. 

Vivek: Just a follow-up question. What’s your take on AI and Selling? 

Deb: I think it’s fabulous. I love sales hacks. I love efficiency. I love being able to automate. At the same time I’m greatly concerned because there’s a misunderstanding and the misunderstanding is that we can just let the Ai in the tools and the tech that we have do part of our job. 

And unfortunately, we think it’s going to do the wrong part of our job. We think it’s going to do the human touch piece of our job and it won’t. It’s going to free us up so that we can do more and better work. The connection piece and if we don’t use it that way it’s compromising it. It hurts your results.

Vivek: The last garage question. If you want our listeners to take one thing away from this podcast, what that would be?

Deb: Think about your own perceptions of questions. If you have a negative thought about asking questions, or if you hold back about asking questions, try to figure out what’s really going on there. 

If you have some sort of perceptual barrier, that’s keeping you from unleashing a connection, a really profound powerful connection with buyers and it will be in your way until you figure out what that problem is and then push yourself to work through it because questions really are like magic. They create value they created a memorable experience and the advance sales. 

I can promise you that your perception about questions is wrong or that you don’t know enough about questions to work through that and I’d ask you to give questions a second chance. 

We are available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. Subscribe to our channel for your daily dose of quality learnings and insights into the world of sales and marketing.

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Sanjana Murali is a Marketing Specialist at Hippo Video. She is an award-winning blogger, one of her articles on “Customer Success” was selected from worldwide participants and won her MVP 2019 award. She has learned the knack of ranking her blogs and website pages in the 1st result of Google Search from her 6+ years of writing and marketing experience. She is also the host of #Limitless webinar and podcast series at Hippo Video. She loves to talk about branding and marketing with videos. An eternal writer, words are her lifeline.

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