How do I qualify my customers without coming across as unlikable?
January 29, 2017 8:39 AM   Subscribe

Every week I field telephone enquiries from new customers to see if they make a good fit for my business but my qualifying process might be a little too efficient at the cost of effectiveness.

I have around 4-5 qualifying questions which I use. I ask them these questions in quick succession and an no-nonsense type of way. This has worked extremely well in filtering out flaky time-wasting customers. But I feel it might come across as a little too brusque and this approach might actually be losing me some good customers. I need to know how to qualify customers in a nicer, warmer way without coming across as unlikable? Any of your own suggestions, links or books which touch on this topic would be most welcome.
posted by jacobean to Work & Money (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Do these have to be on the phone? Would it be possible to pre-screen some of this stuff in a non-personal way (email? website?) so that when you actually talk with people on the phone you knew they were "most of the way there" and then could focus on building a relationship?

If I can read between the lines it sounds like you're wondering why you're not getting more conversion from your phone calls and you think this is because you may be sounding "unlikable" but is it also possible that the screening is a two-way street and people decide that during the screening process that your business doesn't work for them?

At some level maybe this initial conversation is something YOU view as a no nonsense screening process but your potential clients view as relatoonship building. So maybe allocate a little more time to this process in the name of retention and have some questions that are not simply screening but general "get to know you" sorts of things and be sure you are talking a bit about yourself as well as asking to know something about them.
posted by jessamyn at 8:57 AM on January 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

When I used to qualify prospective tenants calling on rental ads I used to have a list of questions that I would work into the call in a conversational way. The list of qualifications was in the ad for the apartments too.

Still got a lot of people looking who didn't meet the qualifications.
posted by Melsky at 9:03 AM on January 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

If these folks aren't your customers, they can still act as referrers - so keep that in mind with the small talk on both ends of the interview. Understand where your business does not intersect with these people and see what needs you could/should be expanding into. Use this to understand how your service needs to adapt and grow over time...

TLDR: So your 4-5 qualifying questions - that's the principal talk track, yes... but develop a 2nd or 3rd talk track bent on either acquiring leads and/or planning long term business sustainability.
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:32 AM on January 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have people so this to me nicely all the time.
Stop asking rapid fire questions.
Start by asking the customer about her needs. Work your questions into a conversation.
Then explain what your company does, what services you provide.
If it's not a good fit, end by saying that you don't think you would be able to do everything that she needs and what might work better for her would be XXX.

At least, that is what has worked for me when I've called a company without knowing everything involved in a job.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:46 AM on January 29, 2017 [6 favorites]

There's probably loads of literature on the subject. Being quick and no-nonsense will definitely get your enquiries done, but lacking your desired results.

From what I'm gathering, you're wanting to work on your delivery during the phone calls. Perhaps going from using 5 questions over 3 minutes to 5 questions with 4-5 minutes. Finding a slower 'rhythm' and developing a conversation or relationship of sorts with your prospect. Taking those extra couple minutes may result in a solid sale.
posted by mountainblue at 9:48 AM on January 29, 2017

From what you've described, and the way you've written this and previous questions, you seem to have a blunt, direct communication style. In an American, Canadian, or British context, that isn't a good match with the majority of folks you'll interact with, so you'll inadvertently put many people off. Work on softening your speech to see if it makes a difference. You both know you're having the conversation to see if you are a good fit as business and client, but most people still want to feel like it's not quite so baldly transactional--it seems cold, like all you care about is how efficient it is for you. That may not be true, but it's how it is probably coming across.

In many cultures, a little small talk is not unnecessary time wasting; it is important social lubricant that allows everyone to be put at ease and differentiates your conversation from an interrogation.

As others have mentioned, you will want to slow your speech down a touch to avoid seeming clipped or brisk. Use segues to the next question that refer back to the previous thing the person said, to show that you're listening to them. Use verbal softeners like "Well," "Actually," Could you..."

This BBC article on the difference between the direct communication style of Germans and the indirect style of Brits could help explain some of the clashes that might be happening.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:09 AM on January 29, 2017 [3 favorites]

To clarify: I'm not saying you are German is your clients are British--it's just an example of the problems that can occur when indirect and direct speakers communicate.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:11 AM on January 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

"Hello! I'm so glad you called! I have 5 quick questions that will help determine if our services are the right fit for your needs, may I ask them?"
posted by spraypaint at 10:14 AM on January 29, 2017 [8 favorites]

A customer calling to ask if you can provide a service or goods is a customer service call. If you had someone answering the phone at a business they would be polite, answer any questions the person may have and perhaps give them the location or offer to set-up an appointment.

When you are trying to save time you would pre-qualify the prospect to see if your time is better served with someone that is a good match for your skills or business. The whole point is to save time and allow you to spend your time more wisely. A relationship could be built if there is a match based on that initial call.

Yes, you can seem more friendly. Taking more time to chit chat and threading your questions over a longer period of time but the questions remain the same: ie are you near me? can you afford my service? can I provide the results you are looking for?

Your curt approach may be the speediest way out of a call that won't convert to a sale. I have found a bit longer conversation may not only sell the person on you, if they weren't sure, but also allow you to find a way to serve them and perhaps make a sale.
posted by ashtray elvis at 10:23 AM on January 29, 2017

Make sure to engage salesman skills during this call -- you are screening them, but you're also trying to sell your services. Try to keep it relaxed and make sure the potential customer feels comfortable talking with you. Listen intently, don't make them feel judged.
posted by Fig at 10:26 AM on January 29, 2017

"Thank you for calling! There's a quick intake form/There's a brief Q & A to take care of, and then we'll talk a bit about [any questions you might have, the company, the product, our goals, what becoming a client will do for you and your business...]."
posted by furtive_jackanapes at 11:59 AM on January 29, 2017

Not everyone can process information quickly over the phone - a lot of verbal communication is tied to visual cues when people are speaking in person, so your potential customers have very little to go on if you talk too quickly and don't give them a chance to think before answering. They probably seem like simple questions to you because you have heard them hundreds of times, but to someone talking to you for the first time having to field a bunch of rapid fire questions is likely to elicit quick responses that may not be accurate, and may make the person really uncomfortable. By not giving your customer the time to carefully consider their response, you are showing them that their input and comfort are less important than your time. I sure as hell wouldn't be interested in hiring someone who treated me that way in the first few minutes of our interaction. You may be losing business because you are falsely weeding out people who may have qualified because they a) aren't answering accurately, and b) you have alienated them by being too gruff. Take the extra 30 seconds to slow down and be friendly.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 1:24 PM on January 29, 2017 [7 favorites]

Thanks for the excellent responses so far. But how do you build rapport in such as short space of time? I am a bit of a geek and salesmanship does not come naturally to me?
posted by jacobean at 2:26 PM on January 29, 2017

I would start by asking them to tell you about their problem. Use a general, open-ended question like "how can I help you" or "tell me a little bit about what you are looking for"

As you ask questions, take a moment to be positive about response that fit your criteria. (Oh, you're located in Pleasanton? Great, that is in our service area.) Not necessarily every single one, but sprinkle in some enthusiasm for their business.

At the end, if you want their business let them know that you think it is a good match - you are the right solution for their problem.

If they aren't a good match, apologize and, if appropriate, tell them why so that they will know to call you if their needs are different next time or they might give you a referral to someone whose needs are a better fit.
posted by metahawk at 2:43 PM on January 29, 2017

I think rapport building in a context where potential customers are contacting you is mostly about making it clear that you want to make sure they get the right service for what they need.

I would take just a little more time with opening part and start with something like "Tell me about what you have in mind." Listen without interrupting, even for follow up questions, for a few minutes. Most people will finish up pretty quickly; some people will start to ramble or repeat themselves and then you can gently cut in and ask any of your questions that haven't been answered.

While you want to be efficient on the phone, remember that the customer is also evaluating whether they want to have a working relationship with you--are you going to be friendly and helpful or are you going to be brusque and not explain things?
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 2:45 PM on January 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

I would say building rapport with a potential customer would be understanding what their need is and communicating a solution they want.

Possibly, some callers will know exactly what they want and others may need to be talked through with a few questions; meaning, you being ready to adjust your approach as needed. Also, for callers who are unsure, you should know what they don't want and address it in a clear way that works for them.
posted by mountainblue at 3:40 PM on January 29, 2017

1) Smile when you talk -- it will come through in your voice.
2) "Hello, Jacobean Services! What can I do for you?" Then get the customer to explain why they're calling.
3) Then repeat it back to them and confirm that you've understood -- "So, you're looking for someone to polish your widgets, and you have a budget of $15,000, is that right?"
4) Then you say, "Ok, great. So I have some followup questions to help us understand your situation better and determine if we might be a good fit for meeting your needs."
5) THEN you ask your questions.
posted by phoenixy at 7:55 PM on January 29, 2017 [4 favorites]

I find it helpful to remind myself that, even though this is the 10,000th time I have had this conversation, the person on the other end is having it for the first time. It helps me be less brusque and impatient and more welcoming and informational.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:46 AM on January 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

I find that listening, while perhaps not as efficient as 4-5 quick no-nonsense questions, is very effective at building rapport. Also, a small foible or making a minor mistake that is obvious, even on purpose, can help jump start trust.

Have you ever heard of motivational interviewing? You might be able to change up the questions or delve for more information using this proven psychological quirk.

One more thing - if you're not a salesperson, can you hire one, even just for the one day a week?
posted by dozo at 1:24 PM on January 30, 2017

Thanks for all great suggestions. They should help me tweak my approach.
posted by jacobean at 3:40 PM on February 6, 2017

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