Ask Why 5 Times

I know, I know, you’ve all heard the “ask why five times” cliché over and over and over.  Why repeat it again?  I’ll tell you why.  It’s because of a story I heard just last week from an extremely successful rep with more than 30 years of experience.

The story starts with our crusty old veteran being asked for a bit of advice by a rookie rep.  Not having much time to spare, the vet spits out the tired old “5 whys” tip.  Then he hops into his car to make a call at one of his accounts.  It’s not one his key accounts, but one he’s covered for 14 years now.

The first person he runs into is the plant maintenance manager, a pretty good friend after all these years.  He asks the same first question he’s been asking since 1996, “What’s annoying you most this month, Frank?”  (Actually, the question was worded slightly differently, but hey, this is a family blog…)

“Hate to say it, but it’s you,” is the immediate reply.  “You have got to get me those spare parts for my HMIs NOW.  I’ve known you a long time and you’ve always done right by me, but get ‘em delivered on time every time or I’m gonna’ have to go with a different supplier.”

A few side notes…  HMI stands for Human/Machine Interface.  Don’t worry if you don’t know what that is, it’s not important to understand the point.  The spare parts involved here represent about $2K in annual sales for our intrepid rep who carries a $5 million annual quota.

Our hero remembers the sage advice he just dispensed back at the office, and realizes it’s been a while since he’s done the “why” thing.

  • “Why (#1) do you need those parts so desperately?”
    • “Because the HMIs are breaking down all the freakin’ time”
  • “Why? (#2)?”
    • “Because they’re old.  And as you apparently don’t realize, replacement parts are really hard to get.”
  • “With all the responsibilities you have around here, why (#3) is an extra supply of $5 spare parts even on your radar screen?”
    • “Because when an HMI goes down – which happens 2 or 3 times a week – the entire production line goes down.”
  • “Well shoot, lines go down all the time.  That’s just a fact of factory life.  I still don’t see why (#4) this is such a big deal.”
    • “How about because this production line produces $1 million per day in profit for the company.”
  • “Whoa!  Well why (#5) not just replace all the old HMIs with new ones?  That would cost about, oh… $150,000.   And $1M per day is what… $40,000/hour?  So preventing  4 hours of down time pays for everything.  How much down time are HMI outages causing?”
    • “About 8 hours a week.  Holy cow!  That means I could save the company $320,000 a week!  How long will it take to get those new HMIs installed?”

No BS, that’s how it played out.  What would have happened without the whys?  Not to insult your intelligence, but our rep would have spent 2 or 3 hours hassling with Customer Service expediting a $200 order.  It would have burned rep time, Customer Service time, Order Processing time…  It would have cost the rep’s company money.  WORSE YET, the rep would probably brag about what a customer-centric dude he is and boldly demonstrate the “best practice” of rapidly chasing your tail whenever a customer barks at you.

The two morals of the story are already clear aren’t they?  1) Ask, “why?” five times all the time.  2) Pick one of the old sales clichés every week and apply the daylights out of it.

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