Everything we want from a sales interaction comes from the customer. Think about it. The entire success of the process hinges on their willingness to buy. Everything else is secondary! Your fancy proposal software, your professional presentation, your clean, well-marked vehicle, the shoe covers you wear—all of it is secondary. Though that sounds really obvious, most sales professionals, when they are not closing at an acceptable rate, look for more or better secondary things.

If the customer is primary and everything else is secondary, then the key to unlocking opportunity lies in our ability to connect with our customer. It’s not about our ability to convince them that we’re awesome. It’s about our ability to understand what makes them awesome. How well do you really know your customer by the time your sales visit is complete? Probably not as well as they know about your sales proposal. That’s backwards.

There are some basic fundamentals that sales professionals use to connect with their customers. They are not physical things, which makes them easy for most to overlook. The sales professional who employs these fundamentals are extremely difficult to imitate. Those sales pros stand out from the rest of the crowd.

One of those fundamentals is our ability to ask good questions. Not the kinds of questions that you mechanically read off of a form. Exceptional questions that engage the emotion of the buyer. Questions that help you understand who they are, what is valuable to them, how their world turns. Traditional sales questions are all about things. How much does this thing get used? Is that thing too loud? Is the thing keeping the rooms in your house all the same temperature? Those kinds of questions have value, but they only engage your customer in the logical part of their brain. The logical part of the brain doesn’t like to pay attention if the emotional part hasn’t first been engaged.

The secret to asking great questions is this: Intent precedes interest. If your intent is to learn all of the things you might be able to sell, your customer will detect that your only interested in your own needs. You’ll get short answers. And you’ll get very boring answers! Your customer will be generally disengaged, and you won’t differentiate from the crowd at all. You’ll look like every other boring, self-interested sales person out there.

When your intent is to get to know your customer, you’ll become genuinely interested in them. Nothing opens up a conversation quicker than genuine interest. Before long, you’ll be into long conversations about kids or work or hobbies, and you’ll completely lose track of time.

My introduction to HVAC sales was with a man I’ll call Abe. Abe was an incredible sales person. We couldn’t drive down the street, or stop for a coffee, or stop to put gas in the tank without someone saying a hearty hello to him. And he’d respond in kind, using their first name almost every time. They’d exchange pleasantries and we’d be on our way, which is when Abe would tell me that their son’s wife’s cousin was related to a teacher whose oldest son went the same college as his nephew. Seriously! He’d extract these long interwoven relationships and almost always be able to remember the details at a moment’s notice.

Visiting a new customer with Abe was a treat. He’d immediately start asking them about themselves. If kids were present, he’d learn their names. Same with pets. He closed almost every call he attended to. Not because of some new software, or super scientific sales proposal (his proposals were chicken scratch on a yellow pad). Because of his genuine interest in, and concern for, people.

Abe actually cared about people, and treated them like family. He remembered their names, and their kids’ names, and their dogs’ names. He took genuine interest in every person he came across and they reciprocated. He closed almost every sale. He followed up on every sale he closed. Every sale. He cared.

If you want to become a standout sales professional, you’ve got to get away from self-interest and take a lesson from Abe. Change your intent. Starting today, set an intention to learn names, and something interesting or unique about each of the people you encounter. That will lead to incredible questions that will open up their world to you. And once they feel that level of connection with you, you’ll start to see that the sales bling we put so much faith in is secondary. Unlocking opportunity happens when we recognize that our customers are our only opportunity.

Read the first installment in this series.