It’s something I bang on about – a lot!  The importance of questions in selling. And not just any old questions in any old order.

Why are they so important?

Good questions get to the heart of the problem or the desire that is going to move someone to buy. When executed well they make it more likely that person will buy from you.

That touches on another theme that I bang on about – a lot – thinking about how we help people to buy rather than purely selling ourselves. When we think about helping people to buy we put ourselves in their shoes, see things through their eyes, get alongside them and any other figure of speech that makes that point. When we do we are more open to understanding the full picture. And sometimes it might be that our solution isn’t what they need – and we need to be prepared to recommend an alternative.

Anyway, back to questions!

It’s helpful to think of 2 broad dimensions to our questions in a sales conversation.

  1. They uncover valuable information about the prospect’s likeliness to buy. This is about where they are on the buying journey. For example, are they at the early stages of research or close to making a decision? This is often talked about as qualifying the prospect.

  2. Questions help the buyer – and the salesperson – to understand exactly what they are looking for and what would make it a good buying decision. We can add a huge amount of value here in our sales role. Often buyers are unclear. They might have a vague view that they need some help or want something to make them feel good but they aren’t at a stage where they could describe it in crystal clear terms.

As an everyday example, think of the many times that you’ve walked into a shop and the sales assistant has said, ‘Can I help you?’ How many times have you said, ‘No, it’s okay, I’m just looking’ rather than ‘Yes please’?

I would bet that our response, at least 90% of the time, is the first answer. But in a high percentage of those times we are looking to buy – we just might not know exactly what at that exact time. What should the sales assistant be asking us instead?

‘What sort of things are you shopping for today?’ or, ‘What specific X are you shopping for today? (if your shop only sells handbags), would be much better questions.

In this case those questions open up the conversation and the opportunity for us to learn more about the buyer – are they just killing time or are they in the market to buy? From there, (if they’re not just killing time,) we can build up a much clearer picture with more questions, asked with genuine curiosity. You can imagine this being delivered in a very conversational style.

How does this all work in our own business environments?

What might seem ridiculously simple, but is not common practice, is to first think about what you need to know about your buyer – and then work out what questions to ask.

The first part – their likeliness to buy – sits under 6 headings:

  1. What they need or want – broadly and then in detail.
  2. What else is important in their choice – for example, the qualifications of the supplier, the eco credentials of the product, where it’s made or how long it lasts or guarantees.
  3. Their timescales for having the solution or making the decision.
  4. Their budget – or at least what range it sits in.
  5. Whether they are the sole Decision Maker or will look for input from others.
  6. How close our solution would be to their needs.

Grab a piece of paper and write down all the potential information that could sit under each of these points – if you were in the buyer’s head. This is much easier to do when you have a clear picture of your ideal buyer.

Now come up with the questions you would need to ask to uncover this information.  You’ll be building these questions into the structure that we’ll talk about next.

In dimension 2 we ask questions which build on the core information – and create a bigger picture which helps us to position our products and services. This will vary across business and customer types but there are common headings.

We need to find out about:

Their business – past, present and future plans; goals, concerns, hopes and challenges within the business.  External factors – competitors, legislation, the impact of a pandemic!  
People – who else is involved in the business, how they are involved in the decisions or would be impacted by them.  Finally, the nitty gritty of the problem they are trying to solve.  

You’ll be trying to uncover factual information as well as motivations. You’ll want to understand the importance of the problem they are trying to solve compared to other priorities in their world.

When we start with working out the information we need we give ourselves the best chance of asking the best questions and leading the conversation to a natural, good-fit proposal.

Now you might be thinking that it will sound stilted and contrived. It needn’t. Framing questions so that buyers feel safe and comfortable sharing is key. If you’re wondering what I mean by ‘framing’, phrases such as ‘I am curious to know’, ‘Would you be happy sharing…’, ‘It would help me to help you if I could ask…’ are all frames.

What next?

I would encourage you to sit down, think about a typical sales conversation with a prospect, write down the headings I’ve given you and come up with the questions that would give you the answers you need. Don’t rely on thinking on your feet – at least not to start with. Good questioning takes practice and will become 2nd nature over time.

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