How to Ask the Right Questions

Asking questions.

The importance of asking sales questions is pretty well-established by now. However, many salespeople fail to realize that not every question is an appropriate sales question. For example, salespeople often ask personal questions of prospects in order to build rapport. You might ask about a photo of the prospect's family or about the trophy that he has sitting on his desk. Such questions, when not taken to extremes, can indeed help build rapport – but they are not truly sales questions.

A sales question is, quite simply, one that advances the sales process. Asking personal questions establishes you as a “nice guy” but it doesn't propel the sales process forward. And when salespeople fake interest in a prospect's hobbies, the prospect will spot that attitude more often than not. Excessive personal questions actually hurt more than they help.

Good sales questions will have one or more of the following attributes:

  • Uncover the prospect's needs and help you to develop your understanding of those needs.

  • Demonstrate your interest in and understanding of the prospect's issues related to the product you're selling.

  • Help the prospect to gain a deeper understanding of his own needs by exploring issues that he may not have really considered before.

  • Help you to understand the prospect's hopes and fears so that you can explain how your product will address both.

  • Convey information in a way that prospects will accept more easily than if you had simply said, "This is how it works."

    To clarify that last point, people are far more accepting of information that they uncover themselves than they are of information that someone else tells them. If, through a series of questions, you guide the prospect to stating exactly what his need is and how urgent it is, he will believe it – because he's the one who said it.

    Coming up with sales questions that meet the above criteria is not as difficult as you might think. If you have absolutely no idea where to begin, ask your fellow salespeople what questions they use in sales appointments. Better yet, ask the best salesperson on your team if you can accompany her on an appointment or two just to observe her in action. She will almost certainly say yes and be flattered as well. Another source of question material would be your existing customers. Ask them why they bought from you, how the product helps them out, and what they would say to someone who is considering buying. The answers you get to these questions should give you a solid start in developing your own sales questions.

    Your "stock" sales questions should be designed to open up a conversation. Pick a subject that your prospects are likely to respond to strongly and build a question that encourages the prospect to continue at length. For example, if you're selling an inventory management system and many of your customers report that they had inventory shortages before implementing your system, you might use a question like, "What inventory shortages have you experienced in the past year?" Because this question is open-ended, it encourages the prospect to elaborate.

    The question also assumes that the prospect has had issues, which is probably the case if he's willing to talk to you in the first place – but it also starts him thinking about those inventory shortages, bringing the issue to the forefront of his mind.

    If such a question elicits just a brief answer, you can ask supporting questions to dig for more information. For example, you might follow the above example question with, "Can you tell me more about that?" or "And what was the result?" A brief answer to an open-ended question usually indicates either that the prospect is uncomfortable talking about the subject or that he doesn't consider it important.

    In the latter case, encouraging him to talk and think more about it can help him to realize just how important the issue really is.