The Ask

Customers seldom object to questions from sales professionals. They do object to premature solutions from salespeople who jump from information gathering to selling too quickly.

Sometimes in a sales call, you ask a question, and then the minute it leaves your mouth, you wish you could take it back. The buyer leans away from you and stops smiling. They answer, but you feel a chill descending.

You don’t want to ask bad questions, so what makes a question bad? Here are three reasons why:

  1. The client views the question as inane or lacking real significance
  2. The previous 50 salespeople asked the same exact question, and not one of them helped the buyer solve his problem or improve his situation
  3. The question feels random based on the previous discussion

When you ask a good question, buyers sit up. They lean in, light up and are engaged in the discussion. They like you more when you ask a good question, and they think you’re smart. Better yet, buyers want to answer good questions, so they can provide thoughtful information to help you move forward in the sales cycle.

Why am I asking all these questions? It’s to illustrate that we think by asking and answering questions, which is why questioning is a critical skill set. Here are 10 tips for asking better questions:

No. 1 – Ask Open-Ended Questions
Most sales conversation start with open-ended questions around a broad topic. Open-ended questions demonstrate interest, help you build rapport and encourage the buyer to talk. While buyers have the freedom to answer an open-ended question any way they choose, how you ask provides directional signals.

No 2 – Questions to Build Rapport
During small talk, we often ask questions to find common ground and build rapport. For example:

  • Where did you grow up?
  • Where did you go to school?
  • What are you doing this weekend?

Most of the time, rapport-building questions occur at the beginning of conversations to show we care about the other person and at the end to affirm relationships. They can seem inconsequential, but they’re an important part of human bonding rituals that helps shape our understanding of the buyer’s intentions and perspective.

No. 3 – Yes/No Questions
Doctors use yes/no questions to diagnose health conditions. You can use these to diagnose the buyer’s problems. These questions allow you to exert control over a conversation and put pressure on buyers by asking them to make a choice.

Yes/no questions are effective when you ask for initial meetings. In less than a minute, you can ask three quick diagnostic questions. If your lead answers the questions as you had hoped, the next step is to advise that a conversation benefits him and request a meeting.

No. 4 – Opinions versus Facts
Sales professionals collect information by asking questions. Fact-based questions help you understand what people are doing. Opinion-focused questions help you understand why people are doing something, and what they think about the outcome. You’re always selling against the status quo. Opinion questions help you determine if people are willing to make a change.

No. 5 – Spiraling Questions
Customers seldom object to questions from sales professionals. They do object to premature solutions from salespeople who jump from information gathering to selling too quickly.

To avoid this, ask a minimum of five questions before making recommendations. Start with a broad open-ended question to provide insight on the customer’s situation. Questions 2, 3 and 4 should narrow the focus and collect specific details. Question 5 is a pay-off question, which positions you to sell.

The spiraling method, going from broad to specific, make sense to buyers. When buyers see logic in your questions, they’re more willing to provide thoughtful answers, because you appear to be a competent professional who’s willing to take time to understand their needs.

No. 6 – Questions to Understand Past Actions
Psychiatrists spend a lot of time asking patients about their past. That’s useful information because it helps put the present in perspective. Salespeople also ask questions about the past. This can be an area where the buyer feels uncomfortable about sharing information about past decisions that caused problems. When asking questions about the past, choose the right words and make sure you convey empathy in your tone.


No. 7 – Aspirational Questions
We all want to improve ourselves and our circumstances. Aspirational questions are powerful. They help buyers define what “better” truly is. Examples include:

A year from now, where would you like to be?
If you had more (time, sales, productivity, etc.), how would that impact your life?
When you achieve this, what will that mean?

Professional salespeople perform an important service. They help buyers improve. Asking an aspirational question helps you understand the buyer’s definition of better, which helps you match your approach to what he wishes he could achieve.

No. 8 – Follow-Up Questions
Prove you’re paying attention. Ask a follow-up question. It clarifies situations and makes the buyer feel better when discussing complex information.

No. 9 – Permission Questions
Some questions work better when you ask permission first. For example, you’re in your first meeting with a brand-new prospect named Bob, and you want to learn more about his experiences with his current vendors. If the conversation is flowing easily, you may ask, “Bob, what do you like about your current vendors?”

If Bob is guarded and formal, you’re likely to get better information by asking for permission first. “Bob, could I ask you what you like about your current vendors?”

No. 10 – Questions to Determine Importance
Buyers don’t always tell you what’s most important about the information they share. They tell you they want a great price, outstanding service and amazing quality.

But most buyers are satisficers. Satisficing is a decision-making strategy or cognitive heuristic that entails searching through the available alternatives until an acceptability threshold is met. These types of buyers purchase products and services to satisfy needs. They don’t buy the best possible solution.

That’s why it’s important to ask questions to determine the importance of benefits, features, attributes and any other aspect of value. When a customer requests a special paper, and you ask if the paper choice is a critical component, you’re asking a question to determine importance by requesting information related to a product attribute.

No. 11 – Direct Versus Indirect Questions
Sometimes you should ask exactly for the information you want to know, and sometimes you get better information by taking an indirect approach. Indirect questions are somewhat vague and often open-ended. They allow you to collect information in a way that permits you to feel out a situation and act accordingly.

No. 12 – Next-Step Questions
These questions are a specialized category of follow-up questions. They require you to identify the next step in the sales process, verbally summarize what you have learned, and then ask the buyer to take an action to move forward. The action could be to meet again, give you an opportunity to quote, or give you an order.

These questions are important, because they help you identify where you stand so you can act accordingly. Buyers judge salespeople by the questions they ask. Pay attention to what you’re asking. Push yourself to think past old habits. Take a fresh path. Do something different or find something smarter to do.

Good selling.