Handling Tough Questions from Prospects

Article by C.J. HaydenResponding to an inquiry, placing a follow-up call, or making a sales presentation are all situations where you can expect your prospects to ask questions. Preparation is the key to a confident response, but unfortunately, sometimes we prepare only for the questions we want to hear, and not for the tougher ones clients often ask.

Here are some challenging questions frequently raised in sales and marketing conversations, and some suggestions for how to respond:

Q. How much does it cost?

A. If you have a standard package, go ahead and tell them the cost. Be sure to detail in your quote exactly what they’re getting for the money. But if your rates vary, don’t quote a price until you know enough about the client’s needs to make an accurate estimate. Take this query as a signal your prospect is sincerely interested, and ask more questions about his or her situation.

To avoid comparisons with the competition that may not accurately reflect your value, stay away from quoting hourly rates. Better replies include: “$500 per month,” “I did a similar project for $1500,” or “I’d like to prepare a proposal for you. Do you have a budget in mind?”

Q. How long will it take?

A. Your prospect may already suspect that the answer will be, “That depends,” so if you can’t give an accurate estimate, be prepared to state exactly what it will depend on. Try to be as concrete as possible, citing the number of participants, locations, accounts, versions, or other tangible project elements, rather than pointing to intangibles, such as “timely response” or “degree of motivation.”

Instead of attempting to provide a time estimate on the fly, it can be useful to quote examples and ranges, such as: “The last project like this was completed in three months,” or “A typical project takes four to six weeks.” These can provide your prospect with useful benchmarks without committing you to a firm deadline too early in the sales process.

Q. How much experience do you have?

A. If you’re short on years in the business, describe any related experience you have, whether or not it was doing the exact same work, and whether or not you got paid for it. For example: “I have 10 years in the financial services industry” (even though you just became a financial planner last month), or “I’ve been teaching and training since 1997” (although most of it was volunteer work at the local community center).

Present your past experience in the most positive light possible. What your prospects want to hear is what qualifies you to do the work, and that includes your entire life experience, not just your list of past job titles.

Q. How many clients have you done this for?

A. Be truthful, but look for an answer that you can give confidently. If you are new, try: “In my last job, I worked on many projects like this one,” or “I’ve had substantial experience during my training,” or even: “You would be my first. Give me a try!”

Q. Who are your clients?

A. The point of asking this question is to get a sense of who you typically work for, not necessarily to get a list of their names. You can answer by describing your target market, for example: “I consult with Fortune 500 companies,” or “I serve high net worth individuals.” If you’re new, note that you can describe your market whether or not you have any clients in that market yet.

When a prospect requests references they can speak to, it’s a good idea to be prepared with two or three names. The best references are a) relevant to the type of work you are proposing, b) from clients rather than colleagues or former employers, and c) from recent projects. Since it’s not always possible to meet all three of those requirements, do the best you can. A recent reference from a colleague in your prospect’s industry can often be more convincing than one from an old client in a different field.

Q. What’s your success rate?

A. This is often not an answerable question. How well your clients succeed with what you provide them may have nothing to do with the quality of service you deliver. An alternative is to name specific results that certain clients have achieved, for example: “My client Acme Corp. decreased employee turnover by 30% percent,” or “My client John Smith sold his house in a week for more than his asking price.”

Another approach is to state how you know your customers are satisfied: “Many of my clients stay with me for years,” or “I get most of my business as referrals from my clients.” If you have statistics, by all means use them, but don’t let someone discount your abilities because you can’t prove your worth with numbers.

Practice your answers to these and other challenging questions you get from people in your target market. Your responses should flow smoothly, so you can present yourself well even under pressure. Tough questions from prospects can feel confronting, but they are often indicators that your prospect is seriously considering hiring you, so respond to the challenge with confidence. In the words of Janis Joplin, “Don’t compromise yourself. You are all you’ve got.”

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