In recent articles, we have written about the three legs of a stool — the stool you can stand on to stretch to the top of the selling profession. The three legs are: product knowledge, industry knowledge and selling skills. All three legs must be in place to achieve proper balance.

Let’s review the “selling skills” leg. What do we mean by selling skills? How do you learn them? How do you use them?

I don’t know anyone who was born with these skills. These are skills that must be sought out, acquired, practiced and honed to perfection.

There are very few, if any, formal educational courses that teach selling skills. Courses, however, are available on tape, CD, video, in books and at seminars taught by the world’s finest teachers in the sales profession — Zig Ziglar, Brian Tracy and Tom Hopkins, to name a few.

There are also experienced teachers who can share their individual experiences and skills with you.

The term “selling skills” covers a wide range of topics. For instance, during a sales presentation, you should use the following skills: asking questions, listening, handling objections and closing the order. In addition, you will need to generate and hold the interest of your prospect (selling value and explaining what’s in it for them), and make a perfect presentation of your product or services (features, advantages and benefits).

Asking questions will help you direct a conversation. These questions should also pique the prospect’s interest. Asking questions will help you learn the needs of your prospect. In addition, it will let the potential customer know that you are interested in his or her needs.

Most of your questions should be open-ended, and they should be planned out. An open-ended question can’t be answered with yes or no; it opens the conversation and must begin with one of six words: who, what, where, when, why and how.

In a recent Business Week article by Michael Arndt about James McNerney, 3M’s current CEO, much was written about McNerney’s ability to increase sales by asking questions when working for his former company, General Electric.

In 1997, Jack Welch, then the CEO of GE, picked McNerney to head GE’s Aircraft Engine Unit.

At the time, GE was a distant third in supplying Boeing for its model 777 airplane. In 1999, McNerney clinched a deal making GE the exclusive engine supplier for Boeing’s new long-range 777. The 20-year contract was valued at $25 billion.

As I was reading this, I asked myself, “How did he do it?” There is a lesson in this story for everyone who makes a living in sales: ask questions.

McNerney asked Boeing what would prevent the company from doing business solely with GE. Boeing told him that they were concerned that their airline customers had never serviced GE engines and wouldn’t want to take on such a risk.

McNerney then asked the heads of various airlines what it would take to get them to approve GE engines for their Boeing equipment. Again, he asked questions.

With the information he collected, McNerney put together a package that got GE involved in maintaining the engines. He then got GE’s Aircraft Leasing Unit to buy the airplanes from Boeing and lease them back to the airlines. The result: GE got an exclusive deal with Boeing.

Think about it. GE went from a distant third place to a getting 20-year exclusive contract, all because McNerney asked revealing questions.

Maybe it is time to sit down and write out a plan to move into the No. 1 position. You need to ask questions, then find solutions to address customers’ concerns.

To share your selling ideas, fax: (414) 228-1134, contact Mr. Dixon at (877) 379-3566 or e-mail.