Today almost everyone has come around to the idea that “asking questions” is a critical sales skill. Asking questions is now accepted as a fundamental sales competency.
Questioning is fundamental because it is used in every sales call and is required for developing advanced skills like negotiating and building customer relationships.
Now, it is fair to say the notion about the importance of asking questions is not one of those “hot off the press” ideas. Back in the day, say 1970’s, my colleague Neil Rackham, who founded Huthwaite, not only emphasized the importance of this skill set, he provided a well-researched model to help people get it right. The model, of course, was SPIN Selling.
Since in the early years there were not many of us at Huthwaite, I had the opportunity to train 1000s of sales reps in how to use the SPIN Selling model for asking questions. Because of the sheer number of repetitions, I learned what it took to effectively use the technique of questioning in B2B sales calls. What do you do or not do in order to leverage the persuasive power of asking questions?
Here are some important basic ideas for mastering the skill of asking questions and one particular pitfall that limits the positive impact of asking questions. First some practical points about asking question:
- It’s more important than ever. The importance of some skills come and go – that is not the case with asking questions. The ability to ask questions effectively is more important than ever. For example, it is very difficult to execute what the folks talk about in the Challenger Sales model without being highly skilled in asking questions.
- It’s fundamental, but not simple. Because something is fundamental does not mean that it is simple to master and asking questions is a good example. It requires a lot of practice and feedback to become truly skilled in integrating questions into your sales calls.
- It requires pre-call planning. True. It is very difficult to execute an effective questioning strategy during a sales call without spending some pre-call planning time crafting the questioning strategy and some key questions. The key is not just to ask questions but instead to ask the right questions at the right time – smart questions.
On the road to mastering questioning there are a number of pitfalls. One of the most common and troubling is what we will label – ask then pitch. It looks like this:
- The sales call starts out fine with the sales rep asking questions to find out information about the customer.
Once some basic information is obtained …
- The sales rep goes into their standard product pitch. No more questions are asked while presenting the product.
What’s wrong with this picture?
- Your presentation is not fine-tuned to the customer’s reactions because you don’t ask questions about the customer’s reactions.
- By not asking any questions once you start talking about the product, you are no longer engaging the customer in a conversation – you are doing all the talking.
- It’s easy for the customer to exit the call with the impression that you are not interested in finding out in-depth information about their perception of the value of what you have presented.
The key walk-away is that questions can and should be used for more than just finding out information. For example, questions can help: determine priorities, clarify value, and build support. They can be used to deliver a compelling presentation of your solution customized to the specific needs of each customer.
It would be easy if you could just memorize a standard script for talking about your product and use it again and again. Unfortunately what constitutes value for each customer is different, so a standards product pitch never hits the center of the target – and in some cases it doesn’t hit the target at all!
For these reasons and others, questions can and should be used through out the sales call to continuously engage the customer in a business conversation adapted to their needs and interests.