When it comes to planning a questioning strategy, this is my philosophy: It is OK to ask people questions; it is not OK to question them.
What’s the difference? If the police show up at your door, put you in handcuffs, guide you to the backseat of their patrol car, and take you to the station, they’re going to question you. More to the point, they’re going to interrogate you.
When people feel questioned, they feel interrogated. It doesn’t matter if it happens at the police station or in their own office by a sales professional.
If, instead, people are asked questions, a dialogue can begin.
One of the more effective ways to generate dialogue is through the use of open-ended questions. These are the type that allows the customer or prospect to participate, engage, and elaborate in a discussion. Open-ended questions get customers talking and sharing information vs. feeling like the sales professional is drilling and grilling them.
Remember, we are all human beings, and human beings look for two things in an interaction. We want to be listened to, and we want to be understood. If I am a buyer, and I feel listened to and understood, then I will repay the favor and listen to what you have to say about your product, your service, and how you think that you can help me. So, if you want to ask me questions, first, let me talk about my needs, my company, and the issues and challenges that I am facing.
The way to open the dialogue and get the buyer talking is through a series of thoughtful, open-ended questions. While this sounds fundamental, too many sales professionals trip up on the construction of their questions. They ask, “Have you thought about X?” That’s not open-ended, because the customer can answer “yes,” “no,” or in a limited number of words. This kind of question doesn’t get the customer talking and, as a result, the sales professional doesn’t get the chance to discover any depth of information.
Use strong questioning words.
The three strongest words to begin open-ended questions are what, why, and how.
- What have you done in response to this market trend?
- Why did you decide to restructure your organization in this way?
- How will you counter this competitive move in your major market?
Those three words — what, why, and how — are the ones to focus on in constructing your questions. The old philosophy of the five Ws — who, what, where, when, and why — doesn’t really work anymore because “who,” “where,” and “when” lead to closed-ended questions that only solicit limited information. They don’t encourage buyers to elaborate. “When are you going to make a decision?” By the end of the week. “Where will you expand?” In Europe. “Who is going to help you with that decision?” The CEO and the CFO. None of this is bad information, but the questions are not open enough to get the buyer talking and engaged.
Instead, the buyer feels questioned, and the sales professional is just fact-finding. A better way to get to those facts is to have a discussion. By constructing questions in a more open way, sales professionals can get much more than facts. They can get to the depths of the buyer’s needs, issues, or challenges and, as a result, develop a solution that provides greater value.
During sales training sessions, we work on questioning strategy and scenarios. I will say, “I am the buyer. What questions would you ask me?” Invariably, the response will be closed-ended. They will ask, “Have you done X?” So, I rely, “Nope.” They just look at me. I challenge them to find a better way to ask open-ended questions. Then, they ask, “What have you done around X?” Now I give them an answer.
That is when the lightbulbs begin to go on in their heads, as they have an aha! moment. Every time they throw out a closed-ended question, I give them a one-word answer. Then, they look at me, smile, and reword the question to be more open-ended. That’s when I open up and answer.
All I need as a buyer is to be listened to and understood. All they need as sales professionals is to think about how they construct their questions to go beyond fact-finding and begin a dialogue.