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The Green Sheet Online Edition

May 09, 2011 • Issue 11:05:01

Ask, don't sell

By Jeff Fortney
Clearent LLC

In improvisational comedy there is a game called Questions. The goal is to speak only in questions, and the first person that responds with a statement, rather than a question, is out. It's amusing to watch players as they struggle to respond with a question. This game may sound easy, but it's actually quite challenging.

In sales, we often talk about the art of questioning. However, if you look back at some of your recent conversations with merchants, you will probably find more often than not that you'd be the first one "out." I can recall many times when I would have been.

Those who master the art of questioning find selling easier; they get decisions faster and are more successful. So my question to you is, what prevents you from mastering this art?

The answer is found in two areas: excitement and the desire to be an expert.


It happens all too often. You ask your normal opening questions, and the merchant is comfortable sharing concerns about his or her current processor. For example, a merchant may say, "My statements are too confusing. Plus my processor doesn't help me when I have questions, but I wish they would."

This sounds like an opening for you to demonstrate your expertise and move the sale along, right? The merchant appears to be interested, and if you've had a slow response day, your excitement to respond may be hard to hold back.

You immediately say, "Our statements are easy to read, and we have a great help desk. We work hard to answer the phones quickly and give you real world answers to your questions." You pull out a sample statement and prepare to proceed with the application because, obviously, you are the merchant's best choice - or maybe you're not.

In your excitement you forget to ask, "What kind of questions do you have that your processor isn't helping you with?" If you had asked this important question, you would have found out that the merchant just received a number of chargebacks and felt that the reasons for them were invalid.

Or you may have found out that the merchant was concerned about data security and his or her processor wasn't providing easily understandable information.

By jumping right to the solution, you are missing the opportunity to learn about some very important issues. If you had asked one more question, you could have addressed the merchant's data security question or reviewed a chargeback concern.

However, your excitement prevented you from differentiating yourself from the last salesperson who engaged the merchant, and that difference would have gotten you the deal instead of just a noncommittal maybe.

So, if a merchant voices a concern, take a deep breath, fight your urge to respond with a statement, and ask that one extra question. The lesson learned is that you can't assume the first issue the merchant raises is the real issue. Always ask at least one follow-up question before offering a solution.


Everyone wants to work with an industry expert, and all merchant level salespeople (MLSs) want to know as much as possible about our chosen profession. However, in sales there is a major difference between having knowledge and using it effectively. Dangers lie in how the feet on the street use their expertise.

In some cases, MLSs attempt to apply their knowledge about a particular situation to a different set of circumstances. This usually happens because of the complexity of our industry, and often a correct answer to a problem may seem to fit another situation. But, in reality, it doesn't.

When you translate your knowledge to a new situation, you run the risk that your proposed solution may not work. This means you will likely lose the merchant's business along with all future business he or she could have sent your way through referrals. And worse, you will have damaged your reputation.

Another danger lies in how knowledge is shared. All too often MLSs have the correct answer but explain it in industry jargon or in terms that are too complicated for the merchant to understand. Doing so can be detrimental to your career, as merchants may start to feel inferior to you because they don't quite understand what you're saying.

When this happens - no matter how brilliant your solution is - merchants probably won't do business with you. In both cases, less is more. Before demonstrating your knowledge, ask one more question: "What has your current processor done about that?"

For example, a merchant mentions being tired of the fact that some of the cards he or she accepts are resulting in either nonqualified transactions or higher interchange costs. Rather than going into lecture mode about how interchange works, ask the follow-up question I just mentioned. But don't be surprised if the merchant says, "My processor hasn't done anything about it. They say they don't know why it's happening."

Your response should be, "That really surprises me. I always tell my merchants to do everything the terminal asks them to do. What types of cards are causing these higher costs? Are you being asked for certain information when you run the card?"

If the answer is no, explain what may be missing, but make sure to do so in terms the merchant can understand. Again, express surprise that the merchant's current provider hasn't offered to help.

Instead of using information to demonstrate your expertise, use basic industry knowledge to address the merchant's concerns. The lessons learned:

  • Use industry knowledge only when it fits a specific situation.
  • Be sure to use words the merchant will understand.
  • Find a way to relate your solution to the merchant's point of view.

Practice makes profits

The only way to master the art of questioning is to practice. Use your family or friends, and see how long you can hold a conversation by responding only with questions. It may frustrate them, but you will soon learn how to prevent your excitement and expertise from getting in the way of a sale.

After a while, you'll find that you're asking more questions than you're answering, which is a good thing. 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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