When I was coming up as a salesperson back in the early nineties, one of the teachers who had a profound impact on my development was a gentleman named, J. Douglas Edwards.
Douglas was the coolest character in the world. He had a tough exterior… a little cocky and abrasive — picture Alec Baldwin in that classic scene in Glengary Glen Ross — but also a huge soft spot in his heart for anyone who carried a bag.
One of the cassettes I listened to about three million times — and burned deep into my consciousness — was a little ditty entitled, “Questions are the Answer”. And in personal selling — in any kind of persuasion, really — questions really are the answer.
Successful persuaders are masters at asking questions.
Why are questions so important?
Well, the obvious answer is they give you information. They tell you what the person you’re trying to persuade really wants.
But J. Douglas taught me that questions are much more than that…
He taught me that questions can be used to gradually pry open a person’s mind and get them to agree to almost anything.
The fundamental premise Edwards taught was that if you want to sell somebody something, you have to get them to agree with you, and keep agreeing with you.
And in the early going, what you get them to agree to is almost irrelevant. Any agreement will do, because one agreement leads to the next. Each subsequent agreement puts your prospect in an ever more agreeable frame of mind.
From the moment you make eye contact with a person, they begin agreeing with you or disagreeing with you, before you utter a single word. And you gradually build agreement upon agreement — one reinforcing the next — until your prospect is ready to agree to buy your product when you ask him to buy it.
Edwards taught that if you ask the prospect a question, and they know the answer, they’re happy you asked it. If you ask a question they don’t know the answer to, they resent it.
If you state a benefit to the prospect, he can doubt it. If he says it himself — in response to a skillfully posed question — it has to be true. And having stated its truth, he’s committed himself to it.
Your whole approach in selling is about getting the prospect to commit to things, through questions. You start with little commitments. And then you take each little commitment, and you use it to build larger ones.
So let me give you a few specific questioning strategies that J. Douglas taught me and that I leveraged into millions of dollars in sales during my years in personal selling. And later in this article, I’ll show you how these same principles can be adapted for use in your copy. Sound like a plan?
Let’s begin …
Edwards taught never to make a statement without following it up with a question. And one of his favorite questioning techniques was … the psychological bind.
Binding Questions: Some of you will no doubt be familiar with Elmer Wheeler, author of Tested Sentences That Sell.
One of the case studies in Elmer’s book explains how Wheeler saved one of the biggest drug store chains from bankruptcy in the dirty thirties. How did he do it? Simple. He trained the staff behind the malt counter to use a simple psychological double bind on each customer who asked for a milk shake.
When a customer sat down and ordered a milk shake, instead of asking, “Would you like an egg in your malt?” the clerk was trained to ask, “One egg or two?” And that single sentence resulted in the sale of 29,000 additional cases of eggs a week. Them’s a lot of eggs!
Why did this work? Because where attention goes, energy flows. By drawing the prospect’s attention away from the possibility of having an eggless milkshake, most never even considered that as an option.
And so J. Douglas trained me to close the sale effortlessly, by asking questions like: Our standard delivery is two to three weeks… would that be OK for you — or did you have a specific start date in mind? Would you like it in blue, or is the magenta your preference? Is this cash and carry, or would you like us to ship it to you?
By giving the prospect a choice of this, or that — or, this way, or that way — no matter what they said, the answer was “YES, I’ll take it!”
Active (Ownership) Questions: The idea behind these questions is to activate the prospect’s creative imagination… to get them thinking actively about the purchase and taking ownership of the product in their mind’s eye.
So I would ask questions like: Will you be managing this system yourself, or will you be handing that off to a subordinate? By the way, where will you be installing this? How will we be getting this through finance? And so on.
If the prospect answered questions like this earnestly — which they usually did if I was in rapport and had built up to them carefully — they began the all-important process of investing themselves emotionally in the purchase.
Rhetorical Tie-Down Questions: The key to all of these questioning techniques is the effective use of the power of suggestion. They’re all designed to lead people to the conclusion you want them to make… effortlessly and elegantly.
Used skillfully, phrases like “isn’t it”, “shouldn’t it”, “couldn’t it”, “can’t it”, “wouldn’t it”, “hasn’t it”, “doesn’t it”, and “don’t you agree”, can be very effective in getting commitment. They suggest an affirmative response, don’t they?
Hasn’t it been proven in countless studies that predictive dialing can save you big money in agent costs? Isn’t it critical to wring every last dollar of profit out of your operation these days? This system performs much more efficiently than your current one, don’t you agree?
Switch-Off Questions: Edwards was famous for saying that most sales people are gutless wonders who run for cover at the first sign of an objection. And he had some wonderful brass balls formulas for overcoming objections.
Formula: While the [objection] seems vital at this moment, in the long run, your ability to [benefit] dominates your decision, doesn’t it?
Example: While the weakness of the market seems vital at this moment, in the long run, your ability to handle calls for less than your competition dominates your decision, doesn’t it?
Formula: I know you’re concerned by [the objection], but wouldn’t you prefer [the benefit] over [the objection].
Example: I know you’re concerned by the size of the investment, but wouldn’t you prefer a $15,000 monthly operational cost savings over a small $10,000 monthly finance payment?
Challenge Questions: For the really tough objections, Edwards recommended a different set of objection handling formulas. He recommended using questions that challenged the prospect. And if you’re in rapport, this idea of demanding a justification for an objection can be very powerful.
Here are a couple of different formulas:
Formula: Why is the [objection] more important than the [benefit]?
Example: Why is the fact that you’ve never owned any of our software before more important than the additional profits I can prove this predictive dialing package can give you?
Formula: Why do you refuse [yourself or somebody else] the enormous benefits of [state the benefit]?
Example: Why do you refuse your research staff the enormous benefits of a totally accurate system of test results?
So now you may be wondering …
Great Daniel, but what does all this have to do with mass media advertising?
Remember the cryptic note that John E. Kennedy sent to Albert Lasker in 1903?
“I am in the saloon downstairs. I can tell you what advertising is. I know you don’t know. It will mean much to me to have you know what it is and it will mean much to you. If you wish to know what advertising is, send the word ‘yes’ down by the bellboy.”
Just in case you don’t know the story, the answer to the riddle was (and still is) “salesmanship in print”.
We face the exact same challenges as copywriters as any salesperson does. We need to get the bobble head going, right? We need to handle objections, don’t we?
Do you think we might be able to sell more if we harness the power of suggestion in our copy? With just a few tweaks to the language, these question formulas can be applied all day long in your copy to achieve greater results.
I use binds in my sales copy all the time. A double bind which poses a “yes or yes” question, looks like this:
Will you take the profits this course makes you out of your business… or use them to finally hire some help — so you can spend more time with your family? Either way, the choice is yours!
Or a single bind, (also known as the heaven or hell bind) where one of the options is delicious while the other is totally undesirable, such as this:
Would you rather be one of the 5% in the developed world today who are prosperous and independent… or one of the 95% who are petrified about their financial futures?
And rhetorical tie downs work too…
You can see how they can help keep people engaged as they’re reading your copy, can’t you? And isn’t a well-crafted tie down just the ticket for getting that all important yes momentum going? You can see that, right? Of course you can. Why wouldn’t you use them?
Do we have objections to deal with in copy?
Does carter have lots of little liver pills?
The only difference is we’re not there with the customer, are we? You have to do research to determine the common objections, and then deal with them in your copy. But otherwise, the process is the same.
Let’s say you’re selling a health product, maybe a nutrient formula. Do you think your prospect might object to spending the money each month?
Here’s one way to tackle the objection:
You might be wondering, “Can I afford this?” And I hear you, money is tight all over.
But while the money may seem vital to you at this moment, in the long run, shouldn’t your ability to protect your family’s health dominate your decision?
Why would you deny them these benefits? [And then you list the benefits]
Powerful stuff, don’t you agree?
Until next time, Good Selling!