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Questioning Skills- Part 1: Remember To Ask Some Empty Questions

We know of a history professor whose final exam sometimes consisted of this single instruction: “Write your own question and answer it. You’ll be scored on the quality of the answer (maximum = 50%), plus the quality of the question (maximum = 50%); the passing grade is 75.” He knew that his students would plumb the depths of their knowledge to try to give a really good answer to a really good question. What he learned was which aspects of his subject area they were interested in and what truly challenged them. How can the we apply this concept to our client dialogs?

Any good consultative salesperson knows “it’s all about the client.”  In the situation-analysis phase of our business dialogs, there’s a hidden good news/bad news dilemma here. The good news is that the answers come from the client; the bad news is that the questions come from us. All too often, our questions are a reflection of us, because:

  • We want to show how smart we are and how much we know about our client’s business.
  • We want to elicit a response that will connect directly to our product or service.
  • We want to help the client by providing structure and examples of appropriate answers.  (Yes, that shows empathy, but it doesn’t necessarily lead us toward the client’s needs.)

The enemy here is the multiple-choice question, which provides the client with possible answers— an alarm bell should sound!— and invites her/him to choose one. Essentially, we create a box, and are happy to have the client stay inside that box. Multiple-choice questions risk doing the most damage when their subject areas are the most important; e.g., questions about strategy, long-term goals, best opportunities, greatest threats, etc. Unfortunately, such thought-provoking questions can tempt the client to grab onto a multiple-choice answer like a life preserver— even if that choice is off the mark.

The Baron Group uses the term “needs-clarification question” to describe a query which probes a client’s situation and needs in an intentionally vague, open-ended, subjective and non-directive manner. Examples: “What are this project’s key issues?” “Why is this approach (un)attractive?” “How are continuing economic pressures impacting your business?” If a question can be answered “yes” or “no,” or by a fact— indeed, if it has a “right answer” at all— it’s not a needs-clarification question.

Think of your question as establishing an arena within which your client can choose to roam as he/she pleases. If there is anything in the answer that surprises you or tells you something you didn’t already know— you’ve just asked a good question. Now, follow it up and see where the client goes with it!

Make sure your situation-analysis Q & A includes a healthy dose of open-ended, thought-provoking “essay questions.” Our next blog will delve further into the art of good questioning.

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