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Questioning Skills- Part 3: Where Process Increases Responsiveness

Our last two blogs discussed the content of the consultative salesperson’s questions: the types of questions— “transactional” and “needs-clarification”— and the kinds of information they seek. Now, we’ll examine the process of asking those questions: how do we help the client to volunteer the knowledge we need to construct a targeted, effective recommendation? Our goal is to make the dialog as comfortable for the client as possible; not even a hint of “interrogation” allowed!   Here are three process tools that help the client to be more responsive.

Telegraph the dialog’s direction and subject matter. It’s very disconcerting to ricochet without warning from statistics to needs to strategies to past performance to goals, etc. Construct your conversational “journey” through relevant way points toward a clear destination: a shared understanding that will inform your subsequent recommendations.

  • Technique: Organize your questions into sequenced “clusters” of similar content and announce that you’re switching from one area to another with a “pre-cluster statement:” “Your comments on program objectives lead me toward some questions about strategies.” “Now I’d like to switch gears and talk about program implementation issues.”

Follow-up questions asking for more information and elaboration on what the client just said are usually more productive than planned questions, no matter how thoughtful and diligent the salesperson may have been in preparing them. That’s because a follow-up question goes further down a path chosen by the client; it’s the client’s story, after all, not ours. So, never neglect a potentially fruitful follow-up in your zeal to ask your next prepared question.

  •  Technique: Ask a “contentless” question, e.g., “Say more about that;” “Can you elaborate?” “Can you be more specific?” etc., or simply play-back a key word or phrase the client used, but in a questioning tone, e.g., “…more ‘cost-effective’?” “…a ‘training component’?” “ …a ‘difficult sale to management?” (Some computer enthusiasts refer to this technique as double-clicking.)

Indeed, almost any closed, factual, narrow and superficial question can be transformed into a more needs-related, conceptual, strategic question by adding a “how” or “why” follow-up: “How did you arrive at this spending limit?” “Why will you need the data in that format?”

Make appreciative, supportive acknowledgements as the client responds. He/she wants to know that this (possibly challenging) Q&A is worth the effort; your appreciative phrases are a reassuring signal that the client’s answers are appropriate, beneficial and productive.

  •  Technique: Begin some of your questions with a quick (almost subliminal) “Good,…” “Okay,…” “Thanks,…” “That’s a help,…” etc. Even nodding your head or leaning forward can send an affirming signal that this is definitely time well spent. Give the client a well-deserved pat on the back.

Next week’s concluding Questioning Skills blog tackles a daunting process challenge: asking necessary, but “tough questions” that you fear could upset the client and derail your entire situation analysis.

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