Lorella DePieri
Your Business|Managing Your Practice
Do you ask the questions that lead to sales? | Canadian Insurance

Do you ask the questions that lead to sales?

The ratio between open- and closed-ended questions should be 3:1

This article first appeared on ProfitGuide.com.

Question: “What most impresses you when you meet someone that you want to work with? What builds trust and credibility?”

Answer: “I can always tell how experienced and insightful a prospective business supplier is by the quality of their questions, and how intently they listen. That’s how simple it is.” —The CEO of $12 billion company.

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The ability to ask insightful, provocative questions is a powerful sales and sales coaching skill. Not only do great questions allow you to acquire new important information; asking and hearing the answer allows you to re-frame and expand your perceptions and come up with more innovative solutions. Most importantly it shows you care about what’s important to your clients.

The worst question sales professionals ask a customer is “What keeps you up at night?” Clients report that it’s an overused, lazy cliché. It demonstrates you haven’t done your homework—researched the company, looked at issues from their point of view, and prepared for the call.

Asking powerful questions requires more than putting a question mark at the end of a thought. Powerful questions open the door to rich dialogue and discovery. They invite reflection and help you dig into the real need. They expand the possibilities for collaboration, and focus your attention on solutions.

Insightful questions also bring underlying assumptions to the surface. Consider the following situation: A man is at home, wearing a mask, and another man is arriving. When I’ve made salespeople use closed-ended, yes/no questions to determine what’s going on, they will ask up 12–15 questions without arriving at the answer. Then I have them try asking an open-ended question: “Why is the man wearing a mask?” This version surfaces the assumptions made about the word ‘home.’ The answer to the open-ended question, “To protect his face from a baseball,” is reached more efficiently. (The man at home is a catcher, and the man arriving a runner from the opposing team).

Just like those salespeople flummoxed by a baseball analogy, your team makes assumptions when clients use the words ‘quality,’ ‘timely,’ and so on. It’s natural to assume what that means, but that could lead you down the wrong path, and help you get to the real need much faster.

From a sales management perspective, asking provocative, insightful coaching questions of your team can have a powerful ripple effect. A great question has the capacity to travel well—to spread beyond the place where it began with you and your salesperson into the salesperson’s client organization.

Thought-provoking questions that come from positive intent evoke the neocortex, the creative, problem-solving part of the brain. Short, curt inquisitions can activate the freeze, flight, or fight reaction of the brain. Do your typical coaching questions stir up brain chemicals to turn brainpower into innovation, insight and ‘aha’ moments or do they cause people to run from your inquisitions?

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Coaching questions need to be short & succinct—be clear in what you are asking! Ask more open-ended than close-ended questions. Typically, sales professionals ask 20 closed-ended to every open-ended questions; the ratio should be more like three to one. Your inquiries should be evocative, producing insights and learning instead of factual answers that have been regurgitated by rote. Make sure you’re using active and visual verbs: compare, describe, illustrate, predict and so on.

Great questions cause people to pause and think in new innovative ways. How can you create value through your questioning? Here are six things to keep in mind whenever you coach a sales person:

  • Connect and engage emotions: “What excites the client most about the potential of x?” “What is your number one concern with your energy management right now?”
  • Disrupt current perceptual frames: “If there was one crazy idea around x, what would that be?” “How else could the client solve their problem?”
  • Evoke insight: “What is a key insight from this analysis?” “What one new thing did you learn from your client research?”
  • Explore and evoke reflection: “What is the value of engaging the customer with this approach?” “What is driving the customer to act now?” “What’s the consequence to the customer’s business if they don’t act now?”
  • Focus on the priority need: “What is the most important outcome for this project/meeting?” “If the customer’s budget was reduced, what is the most critical component of our offering for them?”
  • Explore and expand for deeper understanding, and to exercise the imagination: “Why is this aspect of our solution particularly important to the customer?” “If there were no limits what is the ideal solution you and the client could imagine?” “What does the client mean by x?”

Approach every coaching interaction with an intense sense of curiosity, and you will learn more and be of value to your sales professionals.

Lorella DePieri is Program Director at the Centre of Excellence (CoE) in Sales Leadership at York University’s Schulich Executive Education Centre. She is also CEO of Results By Design Consultants Inc., designing and delivering learning solutions that lead to sales culture transformation since 1989. And she is Co-Founder of 1-degree shift Inc., an organization whose mission is to serve and support leaders who have an appetite to transform their cultures.