“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes”

Albert Einstein

The question you ask determines the answer you get.

Q: “What most impresses you when you meet someone that you want to work with? What builds trust and credibility?”

A: “I can always tell, how experienced and insightful a prospective business supplier is by the quality of their questions and how intently they listen. That’s how simple it is.” -CEO of $12 B company

The ability to ask insightful, provocative questions is a powerful sales and sales coaching skill. Not only do great questions prompt acquiring new important information – asking and hearing the answer allows you to re-frame and expand your perceptions and come up with more innovative solutions. Most importantly it shows you care about what’s important to your clients.

The worst question sales professionals ask a customer is “What keeps you up at night”. Clients report that it’s an overused, lazy cliché. It demonstrates you haven’t done your homework, researched the company, looked at issues from their point of view and prepared for the call.

Asking powerful questions requires more than putting a question mark at the end of a thought.

Powerful questions:

  • Open the door to rich dialogue and discovery
  • Invite reflection and digging into the real need
  • Expand possibilities or focus attention
  • Bring underlying assumptions to the surface – consider the following situation:

A man is at home, he’s wearing a mask, another man is coming. When I’ve asked sales people to use closed-ended, yes/no questions to determine what’s going on, they will ask up to 12 to 15 questions and still not get the answer. Asking the open-ended question of ‘why is the man wearing a mask?’ surfaces the assumptions made about the word ‘home’. The answer ‘to protect his face from the baseball’ is reached more efficiently. This mirrors the assumptions made when your clients use the words quality, timely etc. It’s natural to assume what that means and you could be going down the wrong path or take much longer to get at the real need.

From a sales management perspective asking provocative, insightful coaching questions can have a powerful ripple effect. A great question has the capacity to ‘travel well’ – to spread beyond the place where it began with you and your sales person into the sales person’s client organization. Empower your sales people with insightful questions by asking those in your coaching sessions.

Provocative questions can alter brainpower up or down. Thought provoking questions that come from positive intent evokes the neocortex – the creative, problem solving part of the brain. Short, curt inquisitions can activate the freeze, flight, fight reaction of the brain. Do your typical coaching questions stir up brain chemicals to turn brainpower into innovation, insight and ‘aha’ moments or do they cause people to run from your inquisitions?

Coaching questions need to be:

  • Short & succinct – be clear in what you are asking!
  • More open-ended vs. close-ended questions. Typically sales professionals ask 20 closed-ended to every 1 open-ended question. The ratio should be more like 3 closed-ended to every 1 open-ended question.
  • Evocative to produce insight and/or learning vs. factual answers “by rote”
  • Asked using active & visual verbs (ie. compare, describe, illustrate, predict)

Great questions cause people to “pause” & think in new innovative ways. How can you create value through your questioning?

Connect & engage emotions – Examples “What excites the client most about the potential of x?” “What is your #1 concern with your energy management right now?”

  • Disrupt current perceptual frames – Examples “If there was 1 crazy idea around x, what would that be?” “How else could the client solve their problem?”
  • Evoke insight – Examples “What is a key insight from this analysis?” “What one new thing did you learn from your client research?”
  • Explore and cause reflection – Examples “What is the value of engaging the customer with this approach?” “What is driving the customer to act now?” “What’s the consequence to the customer’s business if they don’t act now?”
  • Focus on the priority need – Examples “What is the most important outcome for this project/meeting?” “If the customer’s budget was reduced, what is the most critical component of our offering for them?”
  • Explore and expand for deeper understanding and exercise the imagination – Examples “Why is this aspect of our solution particularly important to the customer?” “If there were no limits what is the ideal solution you and the client could imagine?” “What does the client mean by x?”

Approach every coaching interaction with an intense sense of curiosity and you will learn more and be of value to your sales professionals.