Our prospective customers are far more likely to want to engage with us if they believe that they are likely to learn something valuable from us. Most sales methodologies stress the importance of asking intelligent questions at the appropriate time and with the relevant context.

But that’s not enough – and focusing on questioning and ignoring or downplaying the other essential elements of effective business conversations can make for a very one-sided and unproductive interaction.

If we are to build meaningful rapport with our prospective customers, as well as asking well-chosen, well-timed and high-impact questions we also need to share stimulating insights, tell relevant stories and come to the conversation well-equipped to answer our prospective customer’s predictable questions…

Sales leaders need to equip and enable their salespeople to have intelligent, productive and value-creating conversations that demonstrate business acumen, position themselves as trusted advisors, help to qualify the customer, secure incremental customer commitments and advance the customer’s buying decision journey.

Here are the four essential elements:

Thought-provoking insights

There’s overwhelming evidence that our prospective customers want to hear more thought-provoking insights and be asked fewer self-serving qualifying questions. Our goal – in every conversation – must be to share some useful information about a trend or issue that is important to them, and about which we have an interesting, unexpected and relevant perspective to share.

We must avoid falling into the “false thought leadership” trap. Far too many so-called insights are nothing of the sort – they simply serve to reinforce what the customer already believes. If insights are to create genuinely distinctive value, they must stimulate your customer to think differently about the subject. They need to reflect our organization’s hard-won experience and distinctive point of view. And they need to leave our listener intrigued and wanting to learn more.

Compelling stories

Since the dawn of language, our minds have evolved to be particularly receptive to stories. Selling through storytelling has the potential to be far more effective in establishing emotional engagement than any standard product pitch or classic corporate presentation. And yet storytelling is all-too-often an undervalued and underdeveloped sales skill.

While some people may appear to be naturally gifted storytellers, the truth of the matter is that every salesperson has the potential to develop their storytelling skills. It’s not just about how to tell stories – it’s about what stories to tell. We need to establish a flexible framework for collecting, refining, classifying and sharing the stories that already exist within our organizations, teaching people how to tell them, and progressively expanding our pool of sharable stories.

Valuable questions

The ability to ask intelligent questions is clearly an essential sales skill. But customers deeply resent being asked a stream of irrelevant questions and not learning anything valuable in return. Questioning must always involve an exchange of value: both parties need to feel that they are getting something useful out of the exercise and that the conversation has a clear direction.

In addition to asking an appropriate blend of situational, problem, implication and value question types, and skilfully blending questions, insights and stories, salespeople also need to ensure that their questions also stimulate their customers to pause and reflect on their issues, threats and potential opportunities – by asking the right value-creating questions at the right time, in the right context.

Responding to their questions

Of course, our customers will have questions as well – and of course you want to encourage them to ask questions as an important indicator of their interest and engagement. But sometimes your customer’s questions can prove tough-to-answer – particularly for relatively new salespeople who haven’t yet accumulated the necessary hard-won experience.

It’s also important that we don’t confuse our customer’s legitimate questions with genuine objections – each requires a different approach. Whilst we cannot hope to anticipate every possible customer question or objection, our value selling system is designed to help you to prepare and practice your answers to many of the most commonly-asked question types, and to coach and equip your salespeople to respond with plausible and credible answers.

In Conclusion

Effective sales conversations establish rapport, exchange mutually valuable information, and leave all parties feeling that they have invested their time wisely. Asking great questions isn’t enough: our salespeople must also be equipped and prepared to share useful insights, to tell engaging stories and to be ready to answer their prospective customer’s probable questions. One of the best ways of improving the conversational skills of every member of the sales organization is to facilitate collaborative learning and structured experience-sharing.