Is asking questions more important and trickier than you realized? Many sales techniques exhort you to ask questions that will reveal a prospect’s situation, uncover their deeper needs, and heighten the perceived value of your solution. But what if questions serve a different purpose (they do) and can be made more effective by following certain rules (they can)?
First, though, what is the role of questions? For most adults, inquiry is a route to information. For teenagers, questions are a rhetorical way to emphasize their point. For toddlers, questions serve to drive their parents batty. There’s also a more nuanced role for questions.
In their subtlest role, questions are like keys on a piano. They don’t actually make the sound we’re seeking, but we must strike them to hear the music. The music, in this case, is listening. Questions allow us to listen.
Research in 2012 at Columbia University** underscored the importance of listening on influence:
When people feel ‘‘listened to’’ by would-be agents of influence their liking for, commitment to, and trust in the agents tend to increase, thereby expanding the agents’ influence power.[Listeners] reap both informational and relational benefits that make them more influential.
In other words, listening allows you to demonstrate your value more effectively and, in and of itself, helps build the trust required to win a project. And in order to listen well, you need to ask questions well.
The following seven guidelines and the example questions will help you be a better listener; one who builds trust and wins gigs.
- To gain influence, listening must be paired with effective expressing. In other words, you must gracefully interweave your questions with assertions. The graphic below illustrates this point.
- Don’t cross the line from inquirer to inquisitor. Asking too many questions can backfire. However, your prospect won’t feel like she’s being interrogated if you preview where you’re going and ask for agreement. Below is an example:
“I’d like our discussion to cover six areas…[say the six] …will that work for you?”
- Be in the moment, but don’t get lost in the moment. Yes, you have to pay attention, go with the flow and give your prospect (a little) time to stumble through their explanations; however, avoid getting sucked into the weeds and squandering your limited time with the prospect. Sometimes you’ll need to pepper your listening with statements like the one below:
“I’m sorry to interrupt, but I want to be respectful of your time. Is this a fair summary of where you were going? [Concisely paraphrase the prospect’s point.]”
- Demonstrate your mastery, understanding and empathy. A lame question like, “What keeps you up at night?” shows no sophistication and creates no connection. Compare that to:
“You still only have the Kalamazoo plant and it looks like your market share is expanding rapidly into the Northeast. Is that creating the stress, or is there something else?”
- Employ questions that enlighten the prospect. Often the ideal answer is, “I’m not sure. Let me think about that.” Then you and the prospect start exploring as a team. Learning, creating value and connecting.
- Listen. This is obvious, but bears repeating. Questioning only works if you’re listening. Remember: questions are the piano keys, listening is the music. Further, listen to understand and build a relationship. This means you listen attentively (not politely nodding while formulating your reply) and you listen to information that may not immediately appear germane. You sprinkle the conversation liberally with questions like…
“Can you tell me more about that?” and “How does [point the prospect just made] affect [point the prospect made earlier]?”
- Highlight your dedication to the prospect’s success. The best questions are designed to simultaneously inform a winning proposal and show your concern for the prospect’s best interests. Questions about perceived risks and concerns are excellent examples. For instance…
“What could stop us from succeeding?” and “What are your biggest concerns about doing a project with us?”
As consultants, we’re naturally curious. But asking the right questions in the right way (then listening!) is an art, and one worth mastering. The seven guidelines above should give you a running start.
It’s important that we learn from each other, so here’s my question for you: what one, non-obvious question you have found to be particularly helpful in conversations with prospects? Please post your answer in the comments section below.
Text and images are © 2021 David A. Fields, all rights reserved.