How Modern Sellers Can Take Advantage of the Power of Questions

September 4, 2018

As sales pros, it’s our job to understand where our prospects are in the purchasing cycle and how we can help them move forward. The best way: by asking questions.

The power of questioning is such that, in a business environment, “It spurs learning and the exchange of ideas, it fuels innovation and performance improvement, it builds rapport and trust among team members. And it can mitigate business risk by uncovering unforeseen pitfalls and hazards.”

Questions lie at the foundation of intriguing conversations and deep relationships. Unfortunately, asking the right questions to advance a dialogue isn’t an innate skill for all of us. So how can a B2B sales rep learn to incorporate this tried and true tactic?

A recent article from Harvard Business Review, linked and quoted above, explores the topic deeply and offers key takeaways for those of us in sales and marketing.

The Best Types of Questions for Sales Conversations

There are two types of conversations: cooperative, where both or all parties are on the same team or side (colleagues in the same department), and competitive, where all participants are looking to come out on top (sales meetings and negotiations).

The authors of the HBR piece, Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John, point out that there are reasons people don’t ask enough questions; namely ego, overconfidence, apathy, and worry. These are usually dictated by which type of conversation is taking place. But by recognizing them we can more easily overcome them.

Research dating as far back as the 1970s shows that conversations serve two functional purposes: information exchange (learning) and impression management (liking). Despite sales conversations being competitive by nature, it is wise to rely on questions to learn from your prospect and build affinity.

Questions can be broken down into four subtypes: introductory, mirror, full-switch, and follow-up. According to Wood Brooks and John, follow-up questions are the preferred form because they are telling your co-converser that you’re listening, care about what they have to say, and want to know more.

This makes the other party feel respected and heard, which in the business world is worth its weight in gold. For sales pros, listening carefully and reacting to the right cues can mean the difference between closing a deal and losing a sale.

Open-ended questions are particularly helpful when it comes to sales because they help you identify what your prospect truly wants and needs, allowing you to shape your pitch accordingly. Starting a conversation with such a question creates initial momentum by actively prompting a response, which is why folks will often kick off an InMail exchange or connection request on LinkedIn with an inquiry of some sort.

On the surface, it all seems so simple. But there is nuance to the way you deliver questions, the order in which you ask them, and how you follow them up. If you’re asking questions in a more conversational manner, the recipient will automatically feel more at ease and less like you are interrogating them.

Striking the Right Balance Between Sharing Too Much and Not Enough

Answering questions is just as important as asking them, and when doing so, there is a scale one should evaluate. Do you want to be completely honest and transparent, or do you need to sidestep and hold back certain information? Often there is a happy medium.

Though being open when answering questions is important to forging a true connection, in certain circumstances it’s not entirely appropriate. When negotiating a sales deal, it can be necessary to play things close to the vest. But there is much to be said for exhibiting the comfort and trust required to lay out some of your cards, thus making the other party more open and receptive to finding a win-win solution. This is what Wood Brooks and John refer to as coming up with “value-creating deals.”

They recommend predetermining which information you will and won’t share during negotiations, and resisting the urge to be overly guarded.

“In an organizational context, people too often err on the side of privacy—and underappreciate the benefits of transparency,” write Wood Brooks and John. “Why are better deals often uncovered after the ink has dried, the tension has broken, and negotiators begin to chat freely?”

Parting Words from a Legend

In 1936, Dale Carnegie published “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” a book that is still relevant today. In it, Carnegie’s advice can be distilled to two points: be a good listener and ask questions the other person will enjoy answering.

As he put it: “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

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