How Intelligent Are Your Sales Questions?

Posted on 07/01/2013 in Selling Skills

Advancing the sale during a meeting with a prospective client can’t really happen without some intelligent and well-planned questions to help you learn about your customer.  The best salespeople distinguish themselves through both the quantity and quality of their questions. Quite simply, they ask better questions than average sellers do. 

Of course it’s not just about asking numerous questions, but rather successful salespeople choose wisely by asking clever and engaging questions with impact. These skillful questions will help sales professionals to do the following important steps in the sales process:

  • To identify all the decision makers and influencers
  • To explore for a potential sales opportunity with a customer who is satisfied with his or her current provider/supplier
  • To gauge the urgency of the customer’s desire to take action
  • To assess which product or service is most appropriate for a particular customer
  • To surface any unexpressed objections

Clever Questions

"Who else is involved in this decision?” This question helps you to identify all the decision makers and influencers, and also allows you to ask some follow up questions about the decision process that the customer will be following.  For example, another good question to ask is "What steps (or process) are needed to get a new product/service approved?”

By contrast, "Who is the decision maker?” is a much weaker question. This latter question comes close to insulting the person that you are speaking with. It sends out the message that this person can’t possibly be the decision maker and you probably won’t learn about other people who have influence over the final buying decision.

"If you could change one thing about your current situation, what would it be?” 

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the best salespeople are skilled at asking questions to identify a potential customer’s pain points.  However, when speaking with a prospective new customer, the other person may not readily disclose the problems or shortcomings that he or she is encountering with their current provider.

When you speak with a customer who says something like "…we’re satisfied with our current provider or supplier”, what should you do? Average sellers stop asking questions at this point, and tend to either give up by terminating the sales call or transition to talking about their product or service. 

In contrast, successful sellers continue to probe and will ask additional questions to test if the customer is truly satisfied with their current situation. The question that we recommend is "If you could change one thing about your current situation, what would it be?”  No sales technique works 100% of the time, but this question comes close. Much of the time, customers will reveal something that is actionable.  At worst, you’ll simply confirm that the customer is truly satisfied, and you can then move on to a better sales opportunity.

"What have you already done about resolving this problem or issue?” 

After identifying your customer’s pain points, transition to asking a follow up question such as "What have you already done about this issue?” The answer will help you to gauge the urgency of the customer to take action.

Here are two examples based on a recent conversation with a prospective STAR client who had found us on the web and called our office for more information. During the initial phone conversation, the customer expressed over the phone that their current sales force needed to improve their ability to prospect for new business.

When asked, "What have you already done about this issue?” the customer replied that they had hired another training provider but that the first few workshops hadn’t gone well.This answer confirmed to us that the customer was serious about taking action, and also provided an opening to ask some relevant follow up questions about why the workshops with the other provider hadn’t worked well.

Suppose that the customer’s answer had been something different such as "Well, we’ve had this problem for awhile but haven’t had the time to work on it”, this indicates that the customer’s urgency or desire to move forward may not be as strong. 

"Which of these products (or services) would you prefer?” 

You will have more success in closing sales when you can reassure the customer that the best product or service is being provided to them. Whenever possible, offer the customer a choice and ask him or her to tell you which product/service best meets their need.

This works best if you have two or more products/services that fit for a particular customer. For example, after speaking with the prospective new STAR client, we offered the customer this choice: "Based on the background that you provided, it sounds like either our Selling on Value or Sales Prospecting workshop should be your initial workshop. Here is a summary of both workshops. Which one would you prefer?”

The customer’s answer helps you in several ways. First, you can then spend more time talking about that particular product/service rather than talking about all your products/services. Second, whenever you give a customer a choice, it reassures them that you are doing your best to offer something that truly meets their needs.

If you don’t have two or more products/services, you can still use this technique by offering some other option to the customer. For example, say something like "This product is only available in standard sizes. However, we can customize it for you at an additional charge or teach your production facility how to do this yourself. Which would you prefer?”

"What if we do the following…?” 

When the customer is close to making a decision to buy from you but appears hesitant to move forward, there may be an objection that the customer hasn’t expressed.  A good two-step process is to ask the question "What if we do the following?” after which you then make a small concession to the customer. Many times, the small concession can become the tipping point to move the decision from a no to a yes. And, if the customer doesn’t say yes, you know that there is an unexpressed objection, which you can then try to identify and resolve.

Here’s an example. You say "What if we do the following?  We’ll extend the warranty from 3 to 6 months at no additional charge if you start the implementation by the end of this month.”  Notice in this example that you are making a concession ("extend the warranty”) but are asking for something in return from the customer ("implement this by a certain date”). This is crucial. You do NOT want to offer a concession without getting the customer to take some action or next step.

If the customer says no, then you are dealing with an unexpressed objection. Be silent and listen!  Many times the customer will tell you why he or she is reluctant to agree to the action that you suggested. If needed, ask a follow up question such as "What is preventing you from moving forward at this time?”

Several STAR workshops, notably Essential Selling Skills and Sales Negotiation, teach salespeople how to distinguish themselves through both the quantity and quality of their questions. Sales Managers interested in helping their salespeople improve questioning skills, visit our Sales Meeting Kits: Questioning Skills page.