When I was a kid I’d love watching Columbo. It always amazed me how someone who appeared to be such a bumbling fool, could be such a great detective.
As a piece of crime fiction, Columbo is unorthodox because you knew very early on who dunnit, unlike say in an Agatha Christie story. The intrigue was how this fumbling, mumbling old fool; in a shabby raincoat smoking a cigar; scratching his head in total confusion, could possibly solve any crimes at all.
It wasn’t until much later that a sales trainer helped me to understand why Columbo was a master sleuth and in the process enabled me to become a better salesperson by studying him.
The questioning style of Columbo was one key to his brilliance. Like any detective his goal was to ask the right questions to get to the truth, whilst the suspect wanted to hide the truth and throw up smokescreens.
So why is it important for us to get to the truth when we meet with a prospect? Well, the truth is the real problem the prospect has. And what she brings us is her symptoms. If we dive straight in and solve the symptoms rather than the real problem then the symptoms are likely reappear and possibly even multiply. If that happens then guess who they will blame? You!
If alternatively you take the time to uncover the real issue their problem is likely to be solved forever.
But why would the prospect, like Columbo’s suspect, hide their real problem? Well two reasons spring to mind a) they are so involved in their situation that they are unable to discern the real problem from all the other issues they’re facing b) because people are guarded and they don’t know you, it takes time to build trust.
Another move I love of Columbo’s was his permission seeking. It was kind of annoying for me, until I saw what he was doing, he’d say things like, “Would you mind Ma’am if I ask one more difficult thing….” or ”Can I ask you a question about what you just said….”
If you ask a prospect if you can ask them some (difficult) questions and they say “yes”. They will feel ten times more comfortable when you do so. It’s when you surprise someone that they will get defensive.
The best questions Columbo asked were those ‘why’ questions i.e. “Now, Mister Suspect, why would someone do that?” Then he’d wait patiently for the answer. The whys question the statements made. And begin to drill down towards the real issue.
It’s easier to ask great questions if you are genuinely interested in helping your prospect. And wanting to do what is in their best interest. If you aren’t then you won’t be able to ask good questions because you’ll be satisfied will taking money and solving symptoms.
Oh and one last thing…..rest in peace Peter Falk / Lieutenant Colombo. (September 16, 1927 – June 23, 2011)