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5 Rules for Asking Effective Sales Questions

by Doug Davidoff | Jul 21, 2016 4:00:00 PM

sales-questions.jpgFor as long as people have been training others to sell, one precept of effective selling has stood out as an inviolate principle: questions are the key to success for salespeople. I don’t think I’ve ever attended a sales training workshop or read a book addressing sales that didn’t put the ability to ask effective questions at (or at least near) the top of the keys to success.

This post is certainly not going to take issue with the principle of effective questions, but rather the nature of, and the definition of what effective questions are. Even more directly, I’m going to take issue with another precept I hear often (and even used to teach). That precept is, can you ask too many questions?

I recently came across a post on LinkedIn, Why Asking Lots of Questions Is Good for My Customer, that got me thinking about this. While I don’t take issue with anything the author shares in the post, the title combined with a conversation I had with a client’s sales team leader inspired me to update some rules for asking questions in the sales process.

As the Zero Moment of Truth (ZMOT) transforms from new phenomena to normal, it’s important to note that the role of the salesperson has changed radically and so has the prism that a salesperson’s questions are viewed through. Salespeople must understand as the nature of the buyer’s world has changed, the threshold for effective questioning has risen. Consider:

  • Buyers are smarter, more sophisticated and more independent than ever. They no longer rely on salespeople to gain important insights and information.
  • Buyers are more time pressed than ever. While salespeople need to ask questions to get educated on a prospect’s situation, fewer and fewer buyers have the time to educate sellers.
  • With greater demands on key role players and more noise, the window for a salesperson to make a strong impression is getting smaller.

With that as a backdrop, if you keep these five rules at the forefront of your selling strategy, you’ll be sure to ask questions that create impact, enable you to stand out and drive better results, faster.

1. Don’t Ask Questions About Readily Available Information

Do your research. Don’t ask me how many employees I have or what systems I’m using, when that information is out there and available for the sellers willing to do the footwork to get it on their own.

Don’t ask me about the challenges I’m facing or what I need. You should already know that. If you’ve defined your client profile and your buyer personas, you should have also done the research to know what my “high probability problems” are.

The single best way to distinguish yourself as a professional salesperson, as opposed to a peddler, it to begin by asking questions that demonstrate you already have an understanding of my business, the issues I’m likely dealing with and their implications.

While I used to say that a salesperson cannot ask too many questions, that is no longer true. If you’re not asking the right questions, you’re going to bore your prospect.

2. Be Prepared to Ask Resonating Questions

I’m always shocked when I begin a conversation with a salesperson or sales development rep and they’re either not prepared to ask good questions, or they start with boring questions. When you’ve got access to authority, time is of the essence. You must be prepared to ask resonating questions that create impact.

When we build sales playbooks for clients, a core portion of the playbook is what we call Diagnostic Protocol. It is here where we house a variety of different types of questions that address a variety of the issues that our client impacts. Salespeople should be well versed in diagnostic protocol and should have a clear list of “go to” questions that are designed to get the conversation off to a strong start.

Selling is a lot like theatre. A strong opening to the conversation combined with a strong end can make up for an average or even weak middle. The days of small talking your way to what matters is over - and if you still practice that approach, you’re killing your opportunities.

3. Master The Interactive Style of Questions

It’s important to note that “bedside manner” should accompany your questioning style. When you start off with questions that are designed to challenge and make your prospect think, it’s easy to come across as threatening or interrogative. If you do that, you’re dead.

While my previous rule indicates that you should come prepared with questions, that doesn’t mean you should ask them in a rote fashion. The reason you need to be prepared with a strong list of “starter” questions is so that you humanize those questions instantly. You need to be actively listening to what your prospect is saying so that your questions feel conversational and professional.

Another note here is that while strong questions challenge prospects, you must be able to ask them in a manner that is not threatening. A prospect with authority is rarely going to show weakness to you. If your questioning style threatens them, they will typically shut down.

4. Always Remember Where You Are In Your Sales Process And Treat Answers Appropriately

Another common place where salespeople destroy their opportunities is by responding inappropriately to the answers they get. It’s actually more common than not to see this aspect mishandled.

Last week I was getting a demo of a potential SaaS product. The sales rep started off effectively. He started by sharing a strong positioning statement and said that before we began the demo, he wanted to learn a bit about how Imagine was dealing with our situation currently. We were probably two questions in before he was throwing up features and benefits, telling me how they were an ideal solution. The problem was that I hadn’t even gotten to what mattered to me, and he communicated that he wasn’t really listening to me anyway.

If you’re still in the early stages of your sales process (whether you call that discovery, investigative, needs assessment, diagnosis, etc.), remember that regardless of the answers you get - no matter how many pain points they share or hot topics are touched - don’t leave your investigation.

5. The First Answer to Your Questions Is Rarely the Valuable Answer (and neither

is the second)

When I was first taught how to conduct a discovery process, the analogy that was used was peeling the onion. My teachers shared that the initial answers to my questions should be looked at as a starting point in my investigation. Somewhere along the line many salespeople seem to have lost that understanding.

The first answers you get rarely provide valuable insights or selling advantage. First, their most likely reflexive answers; and second even if they are on point, every other salesperson talking with that prospect is getting those same answers.

The value actually lies in the answers you get to your third, fourth and fifth follow up questions. It’s there where the impact and issues are uncovered, and both the salesperson and prospect learn in the process. Conduct your investigative process in this manner and you’ll see much stronger results.

So yes, questions are still critically important to successful selling. But remember, you don’t get to ask as many questions as you used to, so be sure to use the time you do have to its highest impact.