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Customer can breath a huge sigh of relief. The data is in, it shows sales people ask far too many questions, boring or even angering executives for wasting their time. But research now shows the optimal number of discovery questions to ask is 4.

Both, as a victim of too many meaningless discussions where someone is trying to sell something to me, and as an observer on thousands of sales calls, I know I can breathe a huge sigh of relief that “death by questioning,” will come to an end, as sales enablement professionals and sales managers recognize that “4 questions” is the magic number, and scripts will be re-written to include no more than 4 questions—-Though I do wonder if, “When can we schedule a demo,” counts.

I’m taking some liberties with some intriguing research from Gong.io. Chris Orlob wrote an intriguing article, “The Sobering Truth: Why You Can’t Sell To C-Suite Executives.” The research is intriguing and important, and Chris has been very kind in engaging me in discussions about the topic. So I don’t mean to dispute the importance of what Gong is saying, but I think there is more (Chris thanks so much for your patience with me!)

In short, the research says sales people ask way too many discovery questions, boring or angering executives. My initial reaction was, “Well, duugghhh, isn’t that obvious?” And the conclusion is the ideal number of questions to ask is 4. QED, end of story, rewrite all of your scripts. 4 questions is the golden number that allows us to achieve success.

But, clearly, the observations from the research isn’t that obvious. We’ve all been subjected or witnessed sales people, with their lists of questions intended to discover pain, elicit need, identify requirements. At times, these discovery calls seem to be a giant run-on-question.

But I’m not certain the issue is the volume of questions, but the quality of the questions and the ensuing conversations and shared learning that should result from great discovery calls.

First, we misunderstand the discovery process. It’s not just about sales people learning customer needs/requirements/priorities. It’s a collaborative learning process, a journey of exploration we and the customer take to learn more about their business, their goals, how to more effectively achieve their goals, consequence/threats that might arise from inaction. As important, we and the customer learn about each other, and our ability to work together to help them achieve their goals in the most effective way possible.

Discovery is less about the questions, and more about the conversations the questions evoke. It’s these conversations that drive the shared learning process, it’s these conversations that enable us to create value with the customer.

It is here, that too many discovery calls break down. Too many sales people don’t have the ability to engage in a conversation. They don’t have the ability to drill down into the issues that might be evoked in the answer to a question. They miss the opportunity to help the customer learn and discover, to be engaged, as well as to learn more from the customer.

Perhaps they don’t have the knowledge of the problems and issues they are trying to uncover. Perhaps they don’t have the understanding of the business issues the customer is trying to address, perhaps they don’t understand the customer and their business well enough to engage in a conversation.

Perhaps they haven’t done their homework, they are wasting the customers’ time asking questions for which they should have already discovered or known the answers.

Perhaps, they haven’t prepared themselves or the customer, as a result the conversation wanders, there is no outcome other than sharing information, the customer is frustrated with the lack of progress.

Perhaps it’s the self-centeredness of sales people. We are asking questions with an agenda, we don’t want to learn, we really don’t want to engage, we are searching for the trigger responses that enable us to go into pitch mode.

Perhaps we don’t know how to listen, great listening provokes insightful questions and high impact conversations. Or, like questions with an agenda, we listen with an agenda.

Perhaps it’s our internal biases and the customers’ that preclude us from listening learning, probing.

Perhaps, as sales enablement or management professionals, we have so formularized and dumbed down the process, that sales people don’t really understand why they are asking the questions, what they need to discover, and what it means. We’ve trained them to ask the questions, to record the answers, and in the process to guide the customer to an outcome, “And when would it be reasonable for us to schedule that demo…….” We’ve done our obligatory discovery call, but our real objective is to get to the demo, where, again, we can talk about ourselves, rather than what the customer cares about.

I think the real issue is not the volume of questions, but the inability of sales people to leverage questions to engage customers in meaningful, high impact, relevant, learning conversations. While I don’t have research to support my premise, I’ve seen great sales people leverage great questioning to engage the customer—and they never worry about the number of questions, they are concerned about the quality of the conversation. They design calls and meetings that drive shared learning, share discovery, and progress to achieving the customer goals.

I’ve never experienced a high performing sales person that says, “I’ve hit 4 questions, I’ve got to stop because the data says I’ll turn you off on the 5th question…..” (One of my questioning “heroes,” is “Columbo,” he had endless questions, each of which created great insight into the situation.)

We’re told we have to engage customers with insight, rather than questions. I don’t disagree, but there are problems with this.

Sometimes great questions drive great insight. Insight is not always delivered as data, proof points, provocative statements, but by asking the single most important question the customer should be considering.

And then, many of the current approaches to “delivering insight,” run into the same problems we have with questions. The sales person is incapable of using the insight to drive the conversation, to engage the customer in shared discovery and learning.

Too often, insight has become part of the “script.” “If I say these words, in this way, the customer will succumb and agree to the demo…..”

It turns out effectively leveraging insight requires the same skills as effectively asking great questions. If our people can’t do one, it’s unlikely they can do the other.

But I fear, too many won’t understand these issues. Rather than probing the real issues behind effective questioning, they will blindly accept the research—4 questions it is!

As a prospect, I’m relieved.

As a person passionate about the professional practice of sales, we’ve missed an opportunity.

Afterword: I do believe the intent behind this research is to improve the quality of questioning, and not just focus on the volume of questions. As a result, I think it’s important to study Chris’s work and probe it. They have a lot of good stuff to say.

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