Better Sales Questions

Focus, focus, focus.  That’s the phrase that I find myself repeating constantly in every sales seminar that I present.  I believe focus is the greatest challenge for sales people today, and the greatest single solution to their challenges.  There are so many demands on our time, so many tasks calling for our attention, and so many opportunities available to us that we can easily become scattered and dissipated.  And in my 30 plus years of experience in the sales profession, I have identified several places where focus will gain you the greatest results.  At the top of the list is focusing on the skill of asking better sales questions.

If there is only one practice within the scope of the professional sales person upon which you can focus, let it be to gain mastery in asking better questions.

The ultimate tool

Of all the things that you can do and say when you are talking with a customer, there is none that even comes close to the power of asking a good question.  It stands alone, apart from every other tactic, as your single most powerful sales tool.  Nothing even approaches it.

The power of a question

That power springs from a simple principle:  When you ask a question, they think of the answer.  I know that sounds incredibly basic, but the most powerful truths are often very basic.  If you consider this, you’ll come to the conclusion that the language in your question influences, shapes and energizes the thinking of the person to whom the question is asked.

In the case of asking the customer, the question influences, shapes, and energizes the thinking of your customer.  Not only that, but the language in the questions you ask yourself direct and focus your own thinking.

Where does the decision to buy your product or service ultimately take place?  Isn’t it in the mind of the customer?  And what one tool allows you to shape what takes place in that mind?  A good question.

Let me prove it to you.  Answer this question.  Did you enjoy what you had for breakfast this morning?

Now consider what you did when you read that question.  Probably, in a split second spent thinking, you conjured up a picture of you eating breakfast this morning.  You reviewed that by considering the picture, and then made a judgment about it: You either did or did not enjoy it.

In other words, my question caused you to think a certain way, about a certain subject.  And every person who reads this book will do exactly the same thing.  My question will direct and influence the thinking process of thousands of people in some small way.

Our natural reaction, when we are asked a question, is to think of the answer.  While it is possible to be asked a question and to not think of the answer, it generally takes some planning and an act of willpower to do so.  Even then, our conditioning often takes over and supplants our intentions.

For example, decide, right now, not to think of the answer to this question.  I’m going to ask you a question, but I want you to not think of the answer.  Ready?  How old are you?

Don’t think of the answer!

If you are like most people, by this point the answer has crept into your mind and oozed out into your consciousness.

That’s the ultimate power of a question.  When someone asks a question, you think of the answer.  These two questions that I asked above were both relatively trivial.  Imagine, however, the power of a more significant question, or better yet, a series of significant questions, to direct and influence the thinking of your customers.  Are you beginning to gain a sense of the tremendous power of a question?

A practical example

Here’s an example of how this operates in a practical selling situation:  You’ve just made a proposal or a presentation of your solution.  You ask the customer, “What do you not like about my product?”  That’s a terrible question.  What is the customer going to think about as a result of your question?  All the faults he can find with your product.

On the other hand, you could influence the customer to think much more positively about your product by asking this question: “In what ways do you see yourself (or your company) benefiting from this product?”

I’d much prefer to have the customer think about the answer to the second question, rather than the first question.  In this scenario, it was your question that influenced the direction of the customer’s thinking.  That’s the ultimate power of a good sales question.

The power of a question to direct thinking applies just as powerfully to you.  When you ask yourself questions, you direct, influence and energize your own thinking.

My work with questions has led me to conclude that the question is your most powerful thinking device, shaping and prompting excellent analysis, great prioritizing, powerful creativity, and excellent plans.

Your ability to think well depends on the language in the questions that you ask yourself.

Here’s an example.  At one time, I sold for a distributor of hospital supplies.  I was instructed by my manager to make sure that I always had something to present to every customer on whom I called.  I thought he probably knew what he was doing, and I followed his direction.  Every time that I mentioned a product line that I carried, or handed over a piece of literature, or provided a sample, or demonstrated a product, I’d call that a “sales presentation.” Thus, I was prepared to make a sales presentation on every sales call.  At some point along the way, I thought that if I could increase the quantity of sales presentation that I made, I could probably correspondently increase the number of opportunities that I uncovered, and thus, eventually, the volume of my sales.  So, I asked myself this question:  “How can I double the quantity of sales presentations I make in my territory?”

The answer to the question was obvious:  Take two things with me on every sales call.  While the answer was obvious, it took me asking the right question to uncover that answer and the resulting strategy.  I determined to do just that, and saw my sales increase dramatically.

Some time later, I asked myself a similar question:  “How can I increase the quantity of sales presentations I make in my territory?”  Again, the answer was obvious:  Take more than two!

Once again, the answer was obvious.  It was laying there for everyone to see.  But it took the right question to uncover it.  It wasn’t until I asked the right question that I discovered the resulting strategy.

So, again, I implemented that strategy and saw my sales increase again.

Some time later, I asked myself a different question:  “How can I cause the quantity of sales presentations in my territory to be increased?”

Notice the difference in the language of the question.  Now, it wasn’t just about me.  Since I asked the question in a different way, it led me to a different answer, and a different strategy.

The answer to the most recent question?  I could influence some of the manufacturer’s representatives who sold the lines that I carried to work on my behalf in my territory.  If one of them made a product presentation in my territory, it would have the same impact as if I had made it myself.  So, I determined to identify and then work with a core group of manufacturer’s reps, with whom my company had exclusive relationships, and who I determined to be competent, honest and reliable sales reps.

The eventual outcome of this strategy?  I did five times the volume of the average rep in that field.

The sequence

Notice the sequence of events.  Let’s start at the end.  I did huge volumes of business – five times the amount of the ordinary sales rep.  One of the reasons I did that kind of volume was that I created more opportunities than any one else.  One of the reasons I generated more opportunities was my routine of working closely with a core group of manufacturer’s reps, and thoroughly preparing to show several items to every prospect or customer in every sales call.  The reason I implemented those strategies was that I arrived at the obvious answer to some questions I asked myself.

What was the stimulus that created this whole sequence of events?  The questions I asked myself.

If there is only one practice within the scope of the professional sales person upon which you can focus, let it be to gain mastery in asking better questions.

Excerpted from Question Your Way to Sales Success, Career Press, by Dave Kahle


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