Sales and Sales Management Blog

August 31, 2009

Questions are the Answer

Filed under: Communication,sales,selling — Paul McCord @ 9:42 am
Tags: , ,

“Everyone says to ask questions but how do I discover my prospect’s needs or problems without sounding like I’m interrogating her?”  I hear some version of that question on a regular basis.  The idea that questions are the key to uncovering opportunities is well established but many sellers have difficulty in applying the principle and some question whether questions are even the appropriate technique.

In a short article such as this we can’t delve into the topic of questioning in depth but we can address the basic issue of the overall role of questions as a tool in the needs analysis phase of a sale. (If you’d really like some in-depth discussion of questions in selling I’d refer you to Secrets of Question Based Selling by Thomas Freese, OPEN Question Selling by Jeff and Val Gee, or Questions that Sell by Paul Cherry.)

Even if we’ve done extensive research and believe we have uncovered an issue or a problem that our prospect may or may not know about but that they need to address, we have to speak with our prospects to discover what their needs and issues are; how important those issues, problems or needs are to them; and whether or not they are interested in investing time and money in solving the issue.

The above is the “needs analysis” phase of qualifying a prospect.  We can’t sell if there’s no need or want of our product or service.  Consequently, we either have to discover or create a need or want for what we sell.

That’s where questioning comes in.  For many sellers, that’s where the worry about sounding like a CIA interrogator comes in.  How can we use questions to discover needs or problems without making our prospect feel that if they don’t answer correctly we’ll pull out the rubber hose?

We’ve all been taught the difference between closed-end and open-ended questions. We’ve been given instructions on when to use which type question.  Some trainers have given us formulas; others have given us specific questions to ask.

It’s these detailed guidelines that seem to get many sellers in trouble–that gets their questions to resemble Gestapo tactics rather than a discussion with a prospect.

So how do you use questions without intimidating or badgering? 

The answer is actually quite simple—don’t interrogate your prospects.  Instead of trying to figure out whether to ask an open-end or closed-end question here or which specific question to ask now, just ask the natural questions you’d ask your friends if you were trying to understand their problems.

Certainly there are different uses for different types of questions.  Certainly there are times when an open-ended question will be more productive than asking a close-ended question.  But ultimately, the goal isn’t to ask the correct question type but to communicate with your prospect. 

Communication is an art.  We all can and need to improve our communication skills. 

That being said, I’ve found that if I am sincerely interested in understanding my prospect’s needs, my questions come naturally. They’re the same questions—delivered in the same tone of voice—I’d ask a friend or my spouse if I were trying to understand their situation, and those questions and that tone of voice is hardly that of an interrogator.

Rather than being perceived as an unwanted interrogation, my questions are viewed as a sincere desire to understand, to communicate, to help.  Rather than putting my prospect on the defensive, my questions usually cause the prospect to willingly open up more. 

If you find you’re uncomfortable with using questions for fear that you’re putting your prospect on the defensive or you’re coming across as a prosecutor cross-examining an unwilling witness, don’t give up on using questions because questions are the answer to understanding your prospect’s needs and how you can help; instead, give up on trying to use formulas or control the conversation and simply approach your prospect as a friend who has a problem you want to understand.  Ask the natural questions that come to mind and you’ll find your prospect will not only open up more easily, they will be more open to listening when it’s your turn to offer a solution.


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  3. What a great post on the last day of a month! Maybe the sales reps who read this can use the technique on prospects who have not closed yet. Have a conversation and find out, like a friend, what the problem is. Then, like a friend, work with them to address it in a timeframe that works for them.

    Comment by trish bertuzzi — September 1, 2009 @ 6:29 am | Reply

    • Trish,

      I know from reading your blog and our discussions that you’d agree that so often we as sellers end up making things more complicated than necessary. Different question types for different situations and to elicit different types of information? Some questions to explore, some to guide? Yep.

      Complicated? Formulistic? Shouldn’t be if we’re really interested in our prospect and their issue.

      Comment by Paul McCord — September 5, 2009 @ 8:43 am | Reply

  4. […] Re­ad mo­re­ he­re­: Qu­estions ar­e the Answer­ « Sales and­ Sales M­­anag­em­&… […]

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  5. Communicating with your customers should never make them feel like you are interrogating them. It is important to make sure that the conversation flows naturally, and that you are paying attention to the answers that are given so that you know how to structure the rest of the conversation and find out the information you need to provide the solution that is needed.

    Comment by Avril Shelton/Sales Journal — September 1, 2009 @ 12:34 pm | Reply

  6. I’m sure there are many so-called “sales reps” that never think about questions and only focus on features. This article can save their careers.

    Comment by Nick Moreno — September 2, 2009 @ 5:19 pm | Reply

  7. I teach my clients that in the beginning of a sales meeting, they do not yet have the right to ask open-ended questions. To ask them before earning the right is a demonstration of arrogance.

    First, you have ask short-answer questions to demonstrate that you have some credibility and relevance. Those questions typically revolve around What and Have you tried…

    How to ask questions so it doesn’t feel like the Inquisition? Ask them in the same communication style as the person you’re talking to. That’s what they relate to best.

    How can you determine their communication style? Read their face. Simple facial lines will tell your their personality type, values and communication style. Simple.

    — Michael

    Comment by Michael Lovas — September 3, 2009 @ 12:01 pm | Reply

  8. Some salespeople remind me of Macauley Culkin interrogating John Candy in Uncle Buck…

    I think your dead right about having a sincere desire to understand. I believe techniques can help your questioning (SPIN for example) – but you need to have that genuine desire to understand your client or it will come across as a grilling.

    It’s a bit like all the advice on using body language to try to give the impression you are interested in what someone is saying. Rather than trying to mirror them, look at the right parts of their face or whatever – why not try actually being interested in what they are sayign for real. That way your body language will naturally be right – rather than having to fake it.


    Comment by Ian Brodie — September 4, 2009 @ 7:35 pm | Reply

    • Ian,

      You’re so right. Whether we’re talking about body language or verbal language, many sellers get caught up in the “doing”–asking the “right” question at the right time or mirroing perfectly the prospect’s body language.

      I’m a firm believer in process. I have a process for everything. But process shouldn’t translate to rote.

      Having a sincere interest in understanding the prospect and their issue is the catalyst that transforms the process or strategy from a mechanical repitition of movements, questions, or statements into a dynamic interaction with our prospect.

      Our most basic motivation–to either help or manipulate–will in most cases determine how we come across to our prospect (with the recognition that we may well come across as mechnical or even manipulative as we are learning a new set of skills–but that should disappear relatively quickly as perfect the skill and integrate it into our seling process),

      Comment by Paul McCord — September 5, 2009 @ 8:28 am | Reply

  9. Oh, I get loud and animated when someone brings up the body matching technique. It no longer works. And, the reason is, too many people can see what you’re doing when you make those little mirroring gestures. That ruins the intent, which should be just to make the prospect feel comfortabe with you.

    So, rather than play “monkey see/monkey do” with the prospect, just match his/her body attitude. Use only your torso, and lean in the general direction he/she does.

    More important is to match the energy of the prospect. I’m a high-energy, expressive guy. If I’m talking with a low-energy, analytical person, I need to slow my breathing to approximate his. If I don’t, I’ll come of as over-bearing and/or an ADD patient.

    I know a lot about this approach to building rapport because I wrote a book on it. The book was just my attempt to make sense of all the various techniques I learned in my NLP training over the years. I discovered that there are really about five levels you need to achieve before you’re assured that the other person is really in rapport with you. For example, the first level is Safety. If you can’t make the other person feel safe with you, his fight/flight response gets triggered and you don’t want either one.

    OK, this is getting long. Perhaps we can start a separate thread on rappor building if enough people want to learn how to be effective at it.

    — Michael Lovas

    Comment by Michael Lovas — September 5, 2009 @ 7:20 pm | Reply

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