The power of questions: Mercuri International in Johannesburg

The Power of Questions

The Power of Questions

Salesperson: “Good Morning! I am Marc. I represent Lactotech Solutions. I understand you have more than 3 decades of experience in milk processing and distribution. What do you think about the state of dairy farming today?

Customer gives an overview of the industry and hints at plans to expand capacity.

Salesperson: “Thank you so much! That was very insightful. I am still young in this industry, so it is valuable learning for me. Happy to learn that your company is planning a capacity expansion. What is your assessment of the tech and capital equipment requirements?

Customer shares details of possible requirements

Salesperson: “It is exciting that your unit is poised for a big leap! Lactotech can custom make a range of equipment including bulk coolers, clean-in-place tanks, weigh bowls and raw milk reception units. We can also provide advisory support in your choice of technology appropriate to your needs. Our engineers will work with you in co-creating the planned addition to capacity. Can I come back to you with a proposal?” 

Marc reached a point where he could offer to make a proposal in three quick steps. What was the magic at play?

Questions – Passwords for sales success

In a world where answers are a mouse click away, questions represent power. And so it is for Salespeople. You may have a block buster sales presentation under your belt. It is of no help unless you identify what the Customer really wants, what solution will meet that need and what value it will create for him. Here is where questions do a lot of work.

For a salesperson, questions:

  • Help identify Customer need – I won’t buy if I don’t know what I want
  • Get information on a context, situation or customer profile – Immersive understanding: More you know, better the pitch
  • Help understand Customer as a person – People buy from people
  • Have a two-way conversation – Presentations inform, conversations sell
  • Make Customer think – I think therefore I buy
  • Gain time to think – Hit the pause button: Think and respond

Smart ways to use questions

It is common knowledge that questions are of two types – Open and Closed. In a sales context, open questions are used to gather information while confirmations and decisions are obtained through closed questions. Getting a little more granular, open questions can be neutral or leading. Here is a summary of three basic question types and how they can work for you

  • Open neutral questions (ONQs) – Open neutral questions are good for building rapport as they invite long, uninfluenced responses. For instance, “What do you think about London?” is a great start to get someone to warm up to a nice conversation

Key words – What, Where, Why, How, Who, When, Which

Tip – While ONQs are wonderful to start and keep a conversation going, they are likely to elicit long responses. All the content in such responses may not be relevant to the sale on hand. This is a test of the salesperson’s communication skills. You should look for the pearl in the oyster and gently steer the conversation towards matters connected to the sale. Help is at hand. That is where the next type of questions come in for use

  • Open leading questions (OLQs) – Open leading questions are also likely to generate long answers. And, the good news is that the answers are likely to be in the direction where we want the conversation to go. “What do you think about traffic woes in London?” could be a follow up to the example above so that the conversation gets more specific and narrows down to London’s traffic conditions

Key words – What, Which

Tip – OLQs send a message to the other side – “Here is an open question but tell me only about ….”

  • Closed questions (CQ) – Closed questions are helpful to guide the conversation towards a tangible decision. These are likely to produce short, influenced answers often no more than a “yes” or a “no”. “Is London still a good city to live?” is an example of a CQ which can follow the first two above

Key words – CQs usually begin with “Are”, “Can”, “Do”, “Have”, “Is”, “Am” (“Are you in town tomorrow?” “Can you send us the invoice?” “Do you drive a diesel car?” “Is it a good time to speak?” “Am I making myself clear?”)

Tip – CQs are valuable to check for feedback throughout the sale process. “Does it make sense?”, “Can I bring you the term sheet then?”, “Is there anything else?” are CQs typically used at various points of the sale process

Making Questions work for you

  • Questions encourage conversation – Ask the right questions to get the buyer to open up, share information and provide feedback. Questions help understand the buyer and his need which is at the heart of any sale
  • Questions build a conversational funnel – Start with ONQs, listen with empathy and care, use the answers to ask OLQs and narrow the focus and finally wrap up the sales with CQs
  • The constant cycle of funneling proceeds as under:

Build rapport -> Gather information -> Identify need -> Narrow confirmation -> Clarify -> Reconfirm -> Close

7 Rules to master Questioning skills

  1. Live curiously – Children are naturally curious. As we grow into adulthood, we gain experience but lose curiosity. We have so much to learn from each prospect or Customer, if only we are curious and willing to ask questions. The energy and body language that go with a curious minded salesperson, make a huge positive impression. Besides being a vital sales tool, questions are a measure of our curiosity. on the Customer
  2. Frame questions in your mind first – Before firing off a question, mentally rehearse what and how you are going to ask. This should include the right way, right form and right sequence. With practice this becomes second nature
  3. Speak less – More we speak, less time we have for well thought out questions. Active listening makes for picking Customer cues accurately and asking the right questions
  4. Seek to understand –You should consciously seek to understand the Customer and his need in totality so that your questioning supports the sales process
  5. Slow down, reflect and pause – Conversations are deliberate and are the result of a series of well thought out questions. Slowing down consciously also banishes self-doubt which frequently hobbles questioning skills
  6. Practice active patience – As a Zen aphorism counsels – “Infinite patience produces instant results”. New initiates to tennis are advised to ‘keep the ball in play’. When faced with a dead end in a sales situation, active patience enables a salesperson to keep the conversation going with smart questioning and without losing sight of goals. This enhances his chances of breaking the impasse.
  7. Let go of assumptions – Operating on untested assumptions is behind many sales failures. For instance, we may assume that the Customer is comfortable with our price quote only to discover much later that price was an issue even to begin with. Assumptions are best tested through intelligent questioning and active listening.

In sales, as with any other area of life, the answers you seek are in the questions you ask!

Can you now figure out how Marc used smart questions to reach the point of offering a proposal?

The Mercuri Insight Document titled ‘The Power of Questions’   details how you can leverage questioning skills to your advantage.