Selling with Questions

It was the mid-1970s, I was 19 and had just moved from Camden to Tower Hamlets, East London one of the most impoverished boroughs in the country. It was a ‘rotten’ borough, corrupt and inept, failing to serve its poor and needy residents. The political process had long failed as ‘class solidarity’ combined with an embedded party machine and bureaucracy meant that there had been no opposition to the Labour party since two Communists in 1945.

I was a firm member of the then Liberal Party and was so disgusted with the state of local affairs and the injustices I was determined to do something. I found local resident, Maurice Caplan, who was also a Liberal who too was outraged at the state of services and together we started Tower Hamlets South Liberal Party.

This was an endeavour apparently doomed to failure and it’s true that in our early days of recruiting door to door, we made no inroads and received all manner of abuse, including idle and less idle threats, often involving Alsatian dogs and or bottles. Maurice, however, was a supreme salesman (he sold insurance door to door for a living) and I learned from him one of the most important sales lessons of my life.

After a few weeks of failure, Maurice changed approach. Instead of evangelizing our cause at the doorstep, which no one was interested in and that immediately evoked hostility, with people often claiming they were ‘Labour through and through.’, he initiated a script for a survey. The story at the door immediately changed. The dialogue went something like this:

Maurice: Hi, I am from your (note the use of your rather than the) local Liberal party and we just wanted to ask you five, easy short questions.

Do you know the name of your local Councillor? The answer was invariably ‘No.’ Has he ever done anything for you? ‘No.’, repeated again.

Do you know the name of your local Member of Parliament? ‘No.’ once more.

Has he ever done anything for you? The reply would be ‘No.’,again.

Finally, he would then ask an open question, ‘Is there anything you are unhappy about locally that you would like to see fixed?’ At which point, usually they would open up about one or more grievance, often very fixable. Suddenly, we were on the ‘same side.’

Invariably, a dialogue would now open and probably 5 times out of 10 he would sell them a Liberal Party membership at the door on that first visit. He did this to cement the relationship, because once they had committed and paid some money, albeit a small amount, they often became an advocate for how we were ‘different’, and to rationalize their decision to join.

This blog is not about politics, it is about making your point more effectively with questions that people answer for themselves. It is about the power of ‘No.’ It is also about showing you are listening to your customer and a little about how people can be shaken from beliefs that they thought they were committed but had never really rationalized. Choose your questions carefully and those questions will make your point far more effectively than any group of statements ever can.

By way of a footnote, this approach combined with a high level of community activism and campaigning to achieve real changes, saw Tower Hamlets Liberal Party grow rapidly in what should have been the most infertile territory imaginable. I moved after three years, but within five years Tower Hamlets Liberal Part had hundreds of activists and formed a majority on council. The lessons I learned during this period stayed with me and proved invaluable in a sales career spanning over 30 years.

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