Questions that Get Prospects Engaged and Motivated to Buy

December 17, 2015


Welcome to the fourth post in our sales prospecting series based on the book The Challenger Sale by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson of the Corporate Executive Board. In the last post we explore best practices for sales pitches. In this post, we cover key questions to ask when opening a deal.

In our last post in this series, we covered the key steps to qualifying opportunities and jump-starting a deal. There we outlined the need to warm up prospects and get them thinking differently. Here we dive into greater detail around the types of questions to ask, calling upon wisdom shared in SPIN Selling by Neil Rackham.

After Rackham and his company Huthwaite examined more than 35,000 sales calls relating to large, complicated scenarios, they came up with the types of questions asked of prospects by successful salespeople. The questions are as follows and are most effective when employed in the sequence presented:

  1. Situation
  2. Problem
  3. Implication
  4. Need-payoff

Keep Situation Questions to a Minimum

Questions asked with the intent of gathering facts are Situation Questions. These can include “What is your annual churn rate?” “How many returns do you process annually?” These questions help uncover buyer problems and provide context for a sales pitch and solution. In other words, they serve the seller. The SPIN Selling research found that it’s better to keep these types of questions to a minimum, especially when talking to buyers in more senior positions. In the end, it’s best to try to dig up answers to Situation Questions without asking the prospect directly. Then focus on the open questions during the meeting with the prospective buyer. At the same time, don’t beat around the bush – it’s better to ask one direct question than try to piece together the picture from multiple answers.

Here’s an example. Let’s assume the seller is trying to determine whether or not the buyer can afford the company’s subscription solution. The salesperson might ask questions like: “What’s your annual IT budget? Who has final say over the purchase of this solution?” Instead, the rep could simply ask, “How much can you afford in monthly payments on a solution?”

Of course, it’s important to ask questions in a way that that keeps dialogue open and makes prospects feel you are trying to help them.

You Need to Uncover the Problem Before Proposing a Solution

These types of questions focus on pinpointing the buyer’s challenges and pains while helping the seller better understand the problem. The answers can contain “implied needs,” which help formulate Implication Questions.

A Problem Question could be “What leads to such a high annual churn rate?” or “Why are you only able to process X# of returns annually?”

According to SPIN Selling, practicing Problem Questions can be one of the most effective ways to improve sales results. After all, only by uncovering problems that you can solve will you be able to sell a solution. Perhaps that’s why the most effective reps ask Problem Questions earlier than later during meetings with prospects.

SPIN Selling suggests that you back questions out of the problems solved by your product or service. Once you unearth a problem, it’s essential to gain a complete understanding of that problem and focus on the effects of the problem while probing. Ideally, you want to identify several problems before focusing on a single one in case your product or service is not ideally suited to address that one problem.

Make Buyers Anxious with Implication Questions

These types of questions are intended to get the buyer thinking about the effects of her problem and feel they are serious enough to warrant change. While SPIN Selling calls these the most powerful sales questions, it’s not always easy for reps to see the link between problems and their solutions. Even experienced salespeople can struggle in this area, proposing a solution as soon as they see the link. The most effective reps focus on making sure the buyer sees and feels the effects of the problems first by asking Implication Questions such as “Could you lose market share due to your high annual return rate?” The goal is to get the buyer to feel the pain is so great that the cost of the solution is well worth it.

An example of implication question: “Could the higher return rate of your products give your competitors an advantage in the marketplace?”

Cash in With Needs-Payoff Questions

Once you’ve uncovered a pressing problem with such serious consequences that the buyer should be motivated to make a change, it’s time to introduce the solution to her pain. However, rather than explain your solution’s benefits, it’s ideal if the buyer ends up stating the benefits on her own. It’s almost as if you are getting the buyer to convince herself.

You do that by asking Payoff Questions that focus on the value, importance or usefulness of a solution. For example, “How much could you save if we could improve your annual return process rate? How much market share could you regain if we reduced your annual churn rate? How would these improvements impact your brand reputation?”

Most buyers view these types of questions as positive and constructive because they are focused on solutions. In reality, as SPIN Selling explains, needs-payoff questions are the mirror image of implication questions.

For instance, the implication question could be “Could the higher return rate increase your costs?” and the needs-payoff question could be “Would a lower return rate help cut costs and boost profitability?”

SPIN Selling assigns a number of positives to these types of questions:

  • They tend to minimize the number of objections buyers express because they get the buyer to state the benefits of your solution.
  • Buyers often apply the benefits or payoff to other areas of their business.
  • Buyers are often more committed to your solution since they came up with the payoffs rather than being told the payoffs.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway here is that questions are a critical part of the sales opening. With that in mind, it’s important to put ample planning time into devising a set of questions that will best engage buyers and compel them to want to take action.

Check back soon for the last post in this series, when we’ll cover the basics of negotiations. Meantime, sign up to our blog to stay in the know on this and other sales-related topics.