Observation Deck

Asking the Right Questions

As providers increasingly focus on retail sales to drive new revenues, they will open the door on additional sales by asking open-ended questions.

Has this ever happened to you? You go to Medtrade. You find a some new products to add to your showroom floor. Representing all cash revenue, the products are the latest and greatest product offerings. You know each product will help customers feel better, recover faster or enhance their lifestyle. But then, a few weeks later, you look at your showroom or your inventory reports, and the products just aren’t selling. You say to yourself, “I know these are great products. They can really help my customers. Why aren’t they selling? What was I thinking? Now I’ve got inventory overload and cash tied up in product that no one wants.” Your next move is to physically move the products closer to the store entrance or near your cash register, but still no luck — the products aren’t selling.

Our industry tends to be full of product geeks, focused on caretailing. We love products, and we get excited about technology advances that advance the health of our customers. We source and sell products to meet the care needs of our customers rather than just selling widgets. We don’t own retail stores; we caretail. But, sometimes selling gets a bad rap. We’re worried about overselling our customers, and sometimes we make assumptions about whether a customer is willing to pay cash for an item not typically covered by insurance. Often, we forget about the wellness aspect of what we do; we focus on the sick.

The VGM Retail team secret shops in stores every day. The one selling faux pas we find is salespeople telling us the great benefits and features of products without matching those features and benefits to our specific needs. In addition, salespeople often don’t take the time to build rapport, get to know the real needs of the customer or make sure that the features and benefits we do tell the customer about actually match the needs of that customer. Mostly, we tell customers told why they should buy this item and that it won’t be covered by insurance. We dump a bunch of details into a customer’s lap that they don’t care about, or don’t fit individual needs. In short, we talk ourselves out a sale.

This recently happened to me. I went into a local sporting goods store to purchase a new pair of shoes. Within a couple of minutes of being in the store, the salesperson tried to sell me the latest shoe for pavement running. It turns out, my plan was to use the shoes on gravel trails and sand. I walked out confused and disappointed — and bought from another store. At that store, one of the first questions the salesperson asked was, “Where do you plan on running the most?” I explained my normal course, got a recommendation and purchased a shoe twice as expensive as the one the first salesperson tried to tell me was the best shoe ever.

Getting Useful Answers

All of our products help people heal, perform better, or simply live an active, more flexible life. Our products have great features and benefits. Every product should be extra simple to sell, right? They are easy to sell with the right sales method. The key is using open-ended questions to build a relationship of trust, matching the exact product with the customer’s needs. An open-ended question requires a detailed answer, using the subject’s own knowledge or feelings. Typically, open-ended questions begin with the following words:

  • Why?
  • How?
  • What?
  • Describe …
  • Tell me about …
  • What do you think about?

The questions allow a conversation and dialogue to occur, building trust with the customer, assuring the customer buys the exact right product for their needs. Closed-ended questions stop a conversation in its tracks, giving the customer an opportunity to stop the conversation with a yes or no answer. As an added bonus, open-ended questions allow the customer to think it was their idea in the first place to buy the product. Here are some reasons to use open-ended questions:

  • Show genuine interest in a customer.
  • Show empathy for a customer.
  • Build a relationship with a customer.
  • Expand conversations with customers.
  • Allow customers to talk about themselves or a loved one.
  • Allow customers to consider consequences.
  • Customer thinks the sale is their own idea.

Imagine you are selling a portable oxygen concentrator. We recommend the following types of questions to get the conversation moving in the right direction, allowing us to get to know our customer and make sure that we share the exact right features and benefits to make the sale. Imagine the dialogue going something like this exchange:

Question: “What brings you into our store today?”
Answer: “I’m planning a trip to Ireland. The nurse at my clinic thought you might have some solutions to make my trip possible.”
Question: “I’ve always wanted to travel to Ireland. Why are you travelling to Ireland?”
Answer:“I’m recently retired. And, I’ve always wanted to see the Rock of Cashel.”
Question: “Sounds like a great trip. I’m so jealous. So, tell me about your health needs?”
Answer:“Well, I’m on oxygen. But other than that, I don’t really have any other health issues, other than the occasional pain from my arthritis.”
Question: “Who are you traveling with to Ireland?”
Answer:“I’m traveling with my daughter and granddaughter. My main goal is to make sure I can keep up with them. I don’t want my health to slow them down.”
Question: “We have some products that will help you keep up with your family. Do you mind if I show you one in particular that can help you keep up with them?”

Because you are building a dialogue and relationship, you now have the perfect opportunity to present the ideal POC solution. The three “what,” “why” and “tell me about” questions give you the chance to learn more about the customer’s needs. If you hadn’t asked those questions, you would never know the customer’s true motivation. You learned about Ireland, oxygen and the real reason the customer is in the store — making their trip and experience with their family better. These questions allowed you to solve the customer’s actual problem, not one you thought they might have. And, you built rapport with empathy, which helped build trust.

And, trust is the key to suggestive selling. The customer basically already sold themselves on the features and benefits. All you have to do is to show the customer the perfect solution, and she thinks it’s her idea in the process.

Selling is simple. It’s about making sure you have a solution to a problem by showing genuine interest and empathy for the customer. Open-ended questions help you do that. And. most importantly, they allow you to avoid being a know-it-all and the smartest person in the room. How ironic is that?

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of HME Business.

About the Author

Maria Claire Markusen is the Director of Operations & Development for VGM Group Inc. Prior to joining VGM, Markusen was the co-founder and the Chief Operating Officer of Simply Shops, a provider of outsourced retail services for health systems and hospitals throughout the country. Before that she was the Chief Operating Officer of Simply Retail Inc.

Technology Building Blocks for HME & CRT Providers podcast