Fog Creek

The very most basic things your company needs to know about sales (part 2 of 4)

This is part two of a four part series, click here for part one.

Part three and four coming tomorrow and Friday.


The most important skill you can develop in sales is the ability to ask good questions. Work on this first, and work on it relentlessly. Other important skills will follow more naturally when you’ve gained some skill here.

Questions give you information and help you understand what the problem or the need is. It’s by far the most powerful tool you have and is the prerequisite to everything else in the sales process outside of saying “hello.”

People generally like to talk about what they’re involved in. A few well placed questions can get the conversation rolling, and as it unfolds you get amazingly valuable information that will help you focus on the things that matter to the prospect.

Also, questions are like magic. You ask one question and suddenly the prospect is telling you other things that you never even asked about.  They’ll tell you things about their business, their processes, the other tools they use, how their teams work, when they can spend money…

I promise when you get good at asking questions you’ll be amazed at their power.  In the early stages of a call with good questions, you’ll find the prospect talking a lot more than you. This is good. This focuses your conversation.

Six rules about questions

1) They must sound natural. Everyone can hear it when you’re reading from a list or a script. It just sounds awful. This makes me feel like I’m on the world’s worst sales call, which is damn close to the world’s worst fate. You make things sound natural through repetition. Practice your questions all the time. Practice them in your head, practice while you’re driving. Think about a call from yesterday and ask where you missed good questions. Play it over in your head, and then revise those sections mentally until they are perfect.

2) No salesy questions. I’ve banned any question that sound like canned “salesy” questions. If any slip through on our team I strangle them, drown them, and bury them in the desert. And then I turn my attention to the question.

I never want to lose sight of the fact that this is a conversation about how to solve a problem, and I want my questions to further that conversation, not make my prospect roll his eyes.

An example of a salesy question is what the sales books call a “tie down” question. It goes like this: “Having a secure house is important, isn’t it?” Barf. Everyone sees right through this manipulative question.

3) Actually ask the questions. You would be stunned at how often question asking is neglected, or how little time is spent on it. Paul Kenny, sales consultant and owner of Ocean Learning, says that the average time that elapses between the end of the initial chit chat and the launch of the pitch is about forty-nine seconds. Forty-nine!  You couldn’t get much more than my name in forty-nine seconds. It’s the biggest missed opportunity in sales.

4) Ask open questions.

There are three types of questions:

  • A selection question: “Do you want the red pill or the blue pill?”
  • A closed question: “Oh my god. Was that the dog?”
  • An open question: “How did you end up down there?”

Open questions are the ones you want to favor. These expand the conversation and receive fuller answers. Closed questions are necessary, but when relied upon too much they invite short, clipped answers.  “Do you want pizza?” invites one kind of answer, and “What are you in the mood to eat?” invites a completely different kind.

Open questions that get a sales call going could be, “What prompted you to look at FogBugz?” or “Since you’re using Bugzilla but looking at FogBugz, can you tell me a bit about what’s not working for you now?” Sometimes you’ll get a short answer to an open question, but that’s fine; just ask another open question.

5) Ask questions until you understand everything you need to. I’ve seen reticence on the part of some sales people around asking repeated questions. They feel like the questions are intrusive and bothersome, and anyway, they’re straining like greyhounds waiting to start their product demo. This is a mistake.

If your prospect describes an internal process you don’t understand, uses an acronym or jargon that’s foreign to you, or simply says something in an unclear way, keep asking questions until you understand properly.

6) Take notes. You think you are going to remember that conversation you had, but you’re wrong. Write your notes as soon as you get off the phone. Just make it part of your habit.


We’re wired for stories.  Take advantage of this. Stories don’t have to be long and elaborate; a story can be simple and short. A story can be a sentence long.  It can be a side comment thrown in as you’re talking about something else.

Stories make your presentation more memorable.  They add vividness. They show benefits. They offer social proof.

Here is a story: “When we decided to dump Subversion and use Mercurial we saved six weeks on our merge time before launches.”

One sentence, but a powerful story anyway. It implies a bunch of things: we used SVN, but had issues with it (likely the same ones they are having); we successfully switched off it; we save time with Mercurial; we can actually do merges now; the prospect could do the same thing; we could probably help them do it.

Most good stories have a villain (or an obstacle) and a solution. In my one sentence story above, SVN is the villain, and its nefarious henchmen are the ridiculous tribulations of merge week month(s). The solution is Mercurial. Just think obstacle-solution, that’s the basic formula.

The single-sentence SVN story is vastly more memorable than any list of features you could spew out. Will our prospect remember the cool electric DAG we built for Kiln?  I don’t know, but I can almost guarantee he will remember that we used to use SVN, that we got off it, and that we made life better for ourselves.

Constantly keep an eye out for stories you can use, whether they come from your company, or the people you talk to. “I was just talking to someone last week who had their year’s supply of ice cream ooze all over the basement floor because the power went out. He bought a generator from me yesterday!”

Of course, don’t make stuff up. It’s never OK to lie to your prospects.

Features and Benefits

This is the most repeated sales advice on the planet: sell benefits not features.

It’s important.

I like to think about the persuasive content of what I say, and benefits are simply more persuasive than features. Despite being so widely suggested, emphasizing benefits over features is something that most sales people are terrible at, and that’s when they even try, which is not very often. Why is this neglected so much?

Because it’s just easier to talk about features, that’s why. It’s the first thing you learn at a new job. And if you happen to have built the product, you can cite every feature backwards, and give a lengthy report on every technology choice you made.  You have the power to make eyes glaze.

Talking about benefits requires empathy and imagination and a fair amount of mental work. Talking about features is safe, and most people never venture out of the fort. But it’s weak. It has low persuasive content.

Here is another story: I was shopping recently for a new mattress since my ten-year-old inner-spring futon had actually enrolled in night courses in torture. I was considering one option and read everything on the manufacturer’s website and did research for a couple of days. I knew the dimensions, and the difference between a pillow top and a plush top, how many coils it had, how likely it was to sag, and that it was branded for various upscale hotels. I was still thinking all this over when a friend told me, “I slept on one of those for a week.  Best bed I ever slept in.  Best sleep I ever got.”

I bought it the next day. Done. All I needed was a trusted voice to tell me how I was going to benefit from it.

I definitely needed to know about the features to satisfy certain minimal concerns, but by themselves features allay fears, they do not persuade. Features get you to zero, benefits move you beyond.

Features and benefits, however, are very tightly entwined, and so if you’re talking about a benefit, it’s usually not off by itself divorced from an actual feature conversation.

Just the other day a client on an old version of FogBugz said, “I’m required to send these reports to my executives.  I have to query the database to get the data I want, then put it into Excel, add some commentary, and then send it along. It’s a painful process.” A “features” answer to this statement would be, “You should upgrade your FogBugz version since they now export to Excel.”

That’s an OK answer as far as it goes, but it’s not nearly as good as a benefits answer which might go like this, “FogBugz now has an Excel export feature, so you can just do a search for the data you want, quickly add any additional columns of data you want to see from the drop-down menu, and then export that to Excel. You save that search for re-use of course. You can stop all of this manual querying and exporting, and you’ll save time. But you can take this further. Since you have to do this all the time, let’s skip the manual stuff altogether. Why not use the API to generate the reports you want and then have them automatically emailed to the people that need them each week? You can use these tools to take this job off your plate forever.”

I talked about features all over the place in that answer, but I also helped him to see a picture of how his problem could go away if he used those features.  That’s a benefit.

For a sales technique-combining bonus, if you responded to his original statement with the question, “How many hours a week do you spend on this report?” you could quantify his time savings for him over the course of a year–a substantial benefit.

Or, imagine for a moment that you sell shark cages for divers. There are a bunch of features you could talk about.  The color is a beautiful silver. The hook system to get it in the water is easy to use. It can be folded up for easy storage. It’s welded by the world’s best welders. Good features.

But what you really care about is that you won’t get eaten by that sinister black-eyed bastard.  That’s what really matters. That’s a benefit.

Next: The most pain-free way to close a sale