During sales training sessions, there are a handful of questions that come up frequently. They are generally in the form of "How can I (get/convince/persuade) prospects to (do something)?" Here are examples from a recent workshop:

How can I get prospects to return my phone calls?

How can I convince prospects to schedule appointments with me when what I have to offer is clearly something they need?

How can I get prospects to make decisions without having to think it over?

While the outcomes described in the questions are reasonable ones, the focus of the questions is misdirected. What those questions are really asking is, "How can I maneuver a prospect into a position to do something he or she is not inclined to do?"

Salespeople shouldn't have to "get," "convince" or "persuade" prospects to do anything or "maneuver" them into a position. Those outcomes should occur as a natural (i.e., unforced) result of the prospect-salesperson interaction.

Looking for techniques to force prospects to act in a certain way is not the answer. It is that type of conduct that causes prospects to develop unfavorable notions about salespeople and exhibit the behaviors that give rise to the "How can I… " questions in the first place.

If you want prospects to react to you in a more favorable manner, you must first examine your own behavior. And then, you need to ask a new set of questions. You should be asking:

How do I construct a compelling message so prospects will want to call me back?

How do I ask intriguing questions so prospects will want to engage in a conversation with me and be more inclined to schedule appointments?

How do I structure a meeting with a prospect so we both are working toward a mutually agreed-to conclusion?

These questions, and other like them, can be rolled into one universal question: How do I interact with prospects so they will want to continue to engage with me? The answer is simple: Focus first on the prospects.

In general, salespeople are much too eager to talk about their product or service — often before they have fully assessed the prospects' situations, understood the outcomes the prospects are trying to achieve, discovered the underlying circumstances that precipitated the desires for those outcomes, and determined that their product or service is indeed the best fit. We call that tendency "premature presentation syndrome" or PPS for short.

Why do salespeople succumb to PPS? It's because they know a great deal about their products and services … and little about their prospects' situations. Add to this that the majority of company sales meetings don't focus on real sales training, those meetings focus on product/service training. So the companies are, in effect, training their sales people to not go into the prospect to learn about the prospect.

To avoid PPS, and counteract the disproportionate amount of real sales training that companies do, sales people should focus on preparing to discuss prospects' situations as you are to discuss the various aspects of your products and services. With a little research on the Internet, you can discover a great deal about your prospects — the products and services they provide, the markets they serve, the competitive and economic pressures they face, their corporate visions and more. Even if a particular company doesn't have a website, you can still discover a great deal about its industry and the market in which it operates.

After you've done the research, you will be in a position to craft compelling messages that will encourage prospects to take or return your calls because the messages reflect outcomes the prospects are attempting to achieve.

You will be able to ask better questions that draw prospects into conversations because the questions will be focused on topics important to the prospects (rather than being focused on you, your company, and your products and services). And, you will be able to establish mutually-agreed-to agendas and outcomes for meetings because the topics for discussion will be relevant to the prospects' current concerns.

The more you know about your prospects, the more they will want to engage with you, and the more focused you will be in identifying opportunities. Consequently, you will be better equipped to qualify and shape those opportunities to take advantage of the unique aspects of your products and services.

Bob Bolak is president and owner of Sandler Training in Boulder and can be reached at 303-376-6165 or bbolak@sandler.com.