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March 08, 2010 • Issue 10:03:01

The nuances of the question, Why?

By Jeff Fortney
Clearent LLC

It's often the first question a child asks - and the one most dreaded by parents. It can be easy to answer or impossible to answer. It can be specific and general at the same time, and in our business, if not handled correctly, it can lead to lost sales and portfolio attrition.

All this in one word: Why?

A child learns the "why" question early. Parents begin by trying to answer the question but often resort to the universally accepted parental answer: Because. This normally follows after hearing the same question asked multiple times.

In sales, some people feel the key to closing is to have answers to all questions. However, often a sale is lost because an attempt is made to answer a "why" question without fully understanding the question's purpose.

What's driving the question?

Why? is the most misunderstood of all questions. It can be rhetorical, operational or driven by emotion. It can also be used to spur conversation. To complicate matters, it may fit multiple categories simultaneously. Following is a description of the categories:

  • rhetorical: A rhetorical question is one that isn't likely to have an answer or require an answer. For example, "I wonder why that merchant thinks it OK to run transactions on his terminal for his brother's business?"

    There may be an answer, but the question isn't posed to be answered.

  • operational: An operational question is one asked in an attempt to learn. For example, "Why do some transactions generate retrieval requests while others go directly to chargebacks?"

    In this case, the questioner is merely seeking information to further understanding.

  • emotion-driven: An emotion-driven question may be as simple as, "Why me?" Most often, no answer, alone, can resolve the situation.

  • conversational: The conversation motivator may be as simple as, "Why do you say that?" Its purpose is likely to elicit a response that will continue the dialogue.

Difficulty arises when the same question fits more than one category. A child may ask, "Why do I have to go to bed at 9:00?" The answer may be operational, yet the question may be emotional. The same applies to a question like, "Why did you do that?"

The difference between the sales world and the parental world is that the word "because" won't suffice as an answer for prospective customers. If a merchant asks an emotion-driven question, you must come up with a satisfying answer.

What's the difference?

The key to differentiating the type of question (and how you answer) is to listen closely to the tonality, consider the nature of the conversation and understand the consequences of your answer.

Tonality is heard, not said. If the question, "Why do I get chargebacks?" is said in a flat manner, it is probably operational. You may simply answer by explaining how a chargeback occurs and what the merchant can do to avoid it.

However, if the question is asked, "Why do I get chargebacks?" it is likely emotional in nature. The merchant is asking why he or she is getting chargebacks and implying that others are not.

Your answer may be that you don't know but are willing to research the situation to see if something can be changed. Never imply that you or someone else is at fault, because fault setting is usually the goal of an emotion-driven "why" question.

If you try to answer an operational question with an emotional response, you will confuse the merchant at best; at worst, you will alienate your customer.

What's the context?

To avoid inappropriate responses, consider each question in context. If it is asked while you are reviewing a statement, it could be about a line item on that statement. In this instance, an operational answer will sound like a script if it does not address the true purpose of the question. You should respond to the specific item in question and ask for more information about the transaction.

In all cases, it's OK to answer with a simple, "I don't know." What you say after admitting you do not know will change depending on the type of question asked. Answers to operational questions should end with, "I will find out." A response to an emotion-based question may end with," I wish I did."

When responding to any "why" question it is important to diffuse any emotion behind it. When emotions are involved, the ability to hear and accept an answer is impaired. The first step is to clarify the question, remembering the context.

What wasn't said?

If a general question is posed, probe for examples. Ask, "Can you tell me more about that situation?" for example.

No matter how you probe, your tone is very important. It must match the tone of the question. Operational answers can be straightforward, but emotional answers must convey a level of concern.

The wrong tone will leave the wrong impression, and could kill the sale. Don't fear "why" questions. View them as assets. Be prepared. Understand their true meaning, and act accordingly. end of article

Jeff Fortney is Director of Business Development with Clearent LLC. He has more than 12 years' experience in the payments industry. Contact him at jeff@clearent.com or 972-618-7340.

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