Tag: small talk

Salespeople need to stop asking oxygen questions

Salespeople need to stop asking oxygen questions

In my position, I frequently have salespeople reach out to me to pitch their product or service. I try to listen to as many of these as possible. I believe there is a chance their product could help me achieve my goals or the goals of my company.

I firmly believe that there are better tools or capabilities in the market that can help my company achieve our goals. For this reason, I will happily listen to a salesperson that makes a persuasive pitch.

I get most frustrated in these opening pitches when the salesperson asks an “oxygen” question. Something like, “In all of my conversations, we have found that salespeople do best when they can breathe oxygen. Do you find that in your own business?”

Really? You just asked me a question that everyone in my position would reply with a “Yes” answer. What good came out of you asking that question. You are now starting in negative territory for having any credibility with me. I have immediately categorized you as wasting my time. Good luck trying to dig out of that hole.

I am not a chastened buyer. We have all seen the comic of the medieval king that is battling his foe with swords. The helpful salesperson is trying to get his attention to sell him a machine gun. 

But if that machine gun salesperson started his pitch with an oxygen question, maybe it is that is the reason that the king doesn’t want to listen. 

I am not suggesting that a successful salesperson shouldn’t make small talk to create camaraderie with the prospect. In fact, I wrote about creating small talk a short time ago

What are oxygen questions?

Oxygen questions are designed to get a positive response. A long time ago, salespeople that sold at the kitchen table (e.g., insurance, pots and pans, vacuums cleaners, Tupperware, etc.) used the philosophy of asking many questions that required a positive answer. The theory was to get the gullible prospect used to saying, “Yes” and eventually saying, “Yes” to the final price.

When you ask an oxygen question, you are suggesting that your prospect is gullible. Is that the impression that you want to give?

Examples of oxygen questions

All of these questions are no better than asking your prospect if his team needs oxygen to do their job. Of course, they need oxygen; everyone needs oxygen.

A lousy question to the VP of Sales: “In our experience, VPs of Sales for young companies are trying to grow. Are you trying to grow your company’s revenue of your venture-capital funded startup?”  This was the oxygen question that I received this morning and gave me the impetus for this post. Aren’t all VPs of Sales trying to grow revenue, especially those in VC funded companies? This question does nothing to advance the conversation.

A lousy question to the Head of Supply Chain: “In our experience, supply chain managers need to drive efficiency in the operations. Are you trying to make your supply chain operation more efficient?”  The sarcastic answer to that question is, “No, I want my company to be less efficient.”

A lousy question to the CFO: We have noticed that CFOs are worried about the accuracy of financial reports to their board and shareholders. Are you concerned about the accuracy of your financial statements? Are you kidding me? What CFO wants to go to jail for knowingly having inaccurate financial statements? How is the answer to that question going to give the salesperson any information?

Use better opening questions

Your opening questions should not be similar to, “Is oxygen important?” Instead, the wise salesperson or business development representative should spend a few minutes researching the company. It won’t take long. You should look at the company website and see what is essential to the prospect. Maybe read the CEO letter in the annual report. Figure out the industry and look at other companies in the industry.

The more a salesperson understands the business of his prospect, the more he can start to add value to the conversation. 

Even starting with a statement about what you do is better than asking an oxygen question. If you cannot take the time to understand the issues confronting that company, start with your value pitch: “My company helps young companies rapidly increase their revenue generation. Can I spend a few minutes explaining how we do that?”

That opening statement is not the best opening, but if you make that pitch to me, I will likely give you a few minutes to hear more. But to be honest, I am a sucker for a good sales pitch, and I hate bad pitches.

Are You Able to Make Small Talk?

Are You Able to Make Small Talk?

Casual conversation or “small talk” helps you sell yourself, which is frequently the most essential thing that you have to sell.

If you have read my book Eliminate Your Competition or you have read much of the pages of my blog, you know that I frequently talk about the importance of selling three different things:

  • Your product
  • Your company
  • Yourself

In most industries, your product is probably very comparable to several other products on the market. It may be slightly better in a few areas, but it is likely marginally worse in a few different areas. Essentially, it is usually a tie on the features and benefits of the product. The brutal reality is that if it is not a tie today, then it will likely be a tie in the future.

I am sure your employer is fantastic. I also assume that the company that wants to beat you is excellent. While there are undoubtedly differences, there aren’t that many companies that are so awesome that it is the primary reason that you make a sale. In general, companies in the same market are mostly a tie.

That leaves you. In most cases, you and your virtual sales team are the primary reason that you win or that you lose. You have undoubtedly heard the old adage that you didn’t lose; you were outsold. Few deals are truly won or lost on product and company – it is typically the sales team that makes the difference.

The sales team understands how to apply the product benefits to the individual needs of the people making the decision. The sales team knows the correct people that will be interested in those small variations of company benefits.

In order for the sales team to have this capability, every decision-maker in the organization must trust you, and hopefully, they respect you. The best ways to do this is through your innate knowledge of:

  • their individual goals
  • their collective goals
  • your ability to relate the correct information to them in keeping with their goals
  • your ability to engender trust in other people

You can develop confidence in other people by your ability to speak about you, your company, and your product. However, you can accelerate that trust if the decision-maker personally likes you. Personal likeability is not a pure requirement, but few people will trust someone if they absolutely do not like the person. In other words, you do not need to be a personal friend to the various decision-makers, but you definitely cannot be a personal enemy.

Personal likeability is the primary reason that you need to be good at small talk. It makes you a human. It elevates you beyond being the smartest person in the room; it means that the most intelligent person is also a friendly and enjoyable smart person.

If you have read my book Eliminate Your Competition, you likely know that I think that acronyms are quite helpful. I recently came across this tweet on Twitter that creates an acronym for the primary aspects of small talk.

FIRE is a great reminder, and I suggest that you have an “ice breaker” story or two in each of the four categories.

  • Family
  • Interests
  • Recreation
  • Entertainment

During small talk, you’ll get some idea of that odd-shaped part of a human being that’s invisible to the eye and impossible to articulate. Are they kind, hurting, silly, or malicious? Some combination of all of those?

Mastering small talk will help you find common ground to create a mini-bond with new contacts. Small talk may feel trite and unimportant, but it’s the small talk that leads to the big talk.

Ideally, small talk will uncover common interests, business alignments, the six degrees that separate you, the potential need for your product, and basically whether or not you enjoy each other’s company. The goal is not to become best friends or a new client on the spot.

The goal of small talk is to establish enough common ground to determine a reason to connect again.

Keeping a conversation rolling is simple when you learn to listen and ask appropriate probing questions that naturally grow from the dialogue. You only need to prepare a couple of questions in advance. If there is a genuine connection, then you can proactively engage in conversation.

There is a balance between too much and too little business talk. If you don’t talk business at all, you may miss an opportunity to communicate who you are, what you do, and what you have to offer and that you are competent in your field. There are some people who you can know for years and never hear them talk about work. You assume they are retired or not interested in more clients.

Match the depth of dialogue to the environment

You don’t want to let people overhear confidential or inappropriate information. Plus, talk that is too deep at business functions can lead to heated conversations. Over-heated conversations can quickly be subdued by merely making a statement that offers little room for a rhetorical comment. This tactic will diffuse the situation quickly and without incident.

For example, say with a smile, “Well, that’s one issue we’re not going to solve over lunch,” or close the conversation with “I understand your perspective,” minus the “but” that would aggravate the situation.

You won’t win points for always having to be right. You may win the debate while making someone else look bad, but in the end, you’ll make yourself look worse. You will, however, earn points for having social graces if you are the bigger person and cool potentially fiery situations.

You have to know when to let go and kill the discussion even if you believe you are correct on the issue. In the grand scheme of things, we must value the opinions of others and accept that it is not essential to win every debate. The last thing you want to do is to appear as the know-it-all who must end conversations as the perceived winner.

How you make people feel will be remembered

When it comes to small talk, don’t think you must say something amazingly insightful each time you speak. People will likely forget your words but will remember how you made them feel.

No doubt, small talk can get a little dull after a while. So, take it upon yourself to make it enjoyable. To prepare for conversations, rely on FIRE (described above). These will make it easy for you to swing an otherwise stale conversation into one that makes you a genuinely enthusiastic conversationalist.

Have you ever been in a conversation that wasn’t clicking, then suddenly the mood changes, and you both have a smile on your face as the conversation starts firing on all cylinders? That’s because you found common ground. It occurs when two people have an interest in the same topic.

By determining in advance what interests you, half of the equation for stimulating conversation is complete. Now your job is to guide the conversation from topic to topic. Your goal is to solve the foremost half of the equation: What’s of interest to your new contact?

You need to be good at this!

The real key to great conversations is to relax. Let the conversation flow naturally. That’s easiest to do when you’re fully engaged and genuinely interested in the conversation topic and the person with whom you are talking.

When you make small talk, you are primarily selling the one thing that you are the premier expert on: you. Since you are typically the reason that you will eliminate your competition and win the deal, you should practice it until you are extremely good at it.

Header photo Conversation by Sharon Mollerus on 2006-05-17 10:08:20
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