Turn tough questions into opportunities

Turn tough questions into opportunities

You and your team may have put hours of hard work into preparing your sales presentation, or time pressure may have dictated that it has been a last-minute effort. Regardless of how much preparation you have done, anyone who has been through the experience will be familiar with that distinct feeling of apprehension when question time comes around.

There is a way to feel more at ease when taking questions from an audience: the key to relieving the pressure of the Q&A session lies in your preparation beforehand. Your planning can mean the difference between winning the business or not.

The way that you, and perhaps more importantly your team, handle questions is one of the most critical factors in establishing or destroying your personal credibility and that of your organisation. The interesting thing is that tough questions aren't something most people plan to ask before a sales presentation, but can arise simply as a result of what the presenter says. Some of the reasons for invoking killer questions include:

Lack of structure - the client has no idea where your sales presentation is going and gets justifiably frustrated with you. As a result, the difficult questions come out, as the audience members try to gain some clarity on your topic.

Lack of evidence - you continually make claims, but don't back any of them up. By substantiating your claims, you're proving your credibility to the client, rather than just boasting 'we're the biggest, we're the best . . .'

Excessive use of jargon - every industry, particularly various IT and telco sectors - has its own buzzwords and acronyms. If too many are used with a client who doesn't know them, they may become frustrated and confused. As a result, they may tune out or ask difficult questions to gain some clarity from your message.

Poor visual aids - a series of slides crammed with information that can only be seen with a microscope can draw the ire of the most patient listeners. If your client is being forced to work excessively hard to follow your points, some may convert their frustration into a potentially difficult question.

By rectifying these symptoms when planning and preparing your sales presentation, you will decrease the likelihood of tough questions from the client.

However, treating the symptoms does not always mean curing the problem. Should you face credibility testing questions, there are several things you can do to not only maintain your credibility, but potentially enhance it.

The golden rule is to never get defensive and always remain professional. Getting defensive makes you look unprepared, incompetent and amateurish. The following steps will help you to remain in control of the situation:

1. Attention: Once a member of the audience is asking a question, stop everything and give the questioner your undivided attention and eye contact. Don't sift through your notes or look for your pen. It shows you're listening and that you're interested in what's being asked.

2. Clarify: Rephrase the question in your own words. This accomplishes several things, including ensuring you've interpreted the question correctly. By doing this, you show the questioner you really were listening which, in itself, will reduce the possibility of hostility. It also buys you time to collect your thoughts and composure.

3. Consider: After clarification you may be ready to answer the question, but that may not always be the best way of deflecting hostility. 'Considering' means trying to uncover the 'real' source of the question. For example:

Clarification: 'So what you're essentially asking is, 'What type of market research have we done to this point in the product development?''Consider: 'Can I ask why market research is an important issue for you?'

Now you've turned the question back on the questioner. This takes the heat off you, but more importantly, enables you to uncover why the person is asking the question, and what level of detail your answer should include.

4. Answer: Once you've uncovered what is important to the questioner, respond accordingly. If you don't know the answer, admit it without being apologetic. Determine if this is something that needs immediate attention, then respond in an agreed timeframe.

5. Confirm: Too often, we answer a question then move on. Make sure the question has been answered to the questioner's satisfaction. If they aren't satisfied, you can then find out why, or at least take up their issue in greater detail.

Any major bid that Rogen is engaged in includes a brainstorming session focused on possible perceived weaknesses or gaps in our solution - from the client's perspective! This uncovers the likely tough questions beforehand, allowing possible answers and evidence to be considered.

Few sales presentations will ever be completed without a difficult question being asked. Through adequate consideration and preparation beforehand, and maintaining professionalism during the presentation, you can convert a potentially difficult situation into a credibility building opportunity.

Jeff Sheard is sales director for Asia-Pacific of Rogen International. Reach Rogen at: htpp://

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