Communication with Questions

A customer and a concrete contractor discussing a job using questions.When was the last time you gave a sales presentation, walked away and thought: “That’s a sale!” How many times have you had that very thought only to realize later that you lost out to another company? Perhaps your analysis of the sales call looked something like this:

I was dressed appropriately. We determined the color they wanted. The price was right. The square footage was dead on. I know my competitors. What could have gone wrong?

The first question I would ask a salesperson of mine in this situation is:

What do you know about the prospect?

This one simple question will open up a whole new realm of analysis:

Why were they shopping for this change? What concerns did they have? What other alternatives had they explored? What are the names of the children? How much did they know about the process before you arrived? How much did they know after your meeting? Who were you competing with? Did you present first or second? When do they expect to make a decision? Who did you present to? Was the actual decision-maker in the meeting?

Studies in sales process, negotiation technique and performance interviews all point to the same thing: To be persuasive, you must ask questions. Whether discussing a sales call or selling to a prospect, asking the right questions is more persuasive than any other action you can take as a salesperson.

Sales studies used to focus only on open and closed-ended questions.

Open-ended: “Could you tell me more about that?”
Close-ended: “Are you making the buying decision?”

Since that time, Neil Rackham, author of “SPIN Selling,” has shed light on four specific types of questions a salesperson can ask in residential and commercial sales presentations: Situation, Problem, Implication, Need-Payoff.

Situation questions are used at the beginning of a sales call to gather data. These questions are used to obtain background information. For example, “How long have you been considering this change?”

Problem questions are used only after the buyer’s situation has been established. These questions are intended to explore problems they are currently having or would like to avoid in the future. Inexperienced sellers usually breeze through this area of questions, when they should focus their efforts here to determine the prospect’s motivations for change. For example, “Is it difficult to clean this surface?” “Does it stain easily?”

In residential sales you can be very successful while only asking situation and problem questions, but in commercial sales this is not enough. Implication questions communicate the buyers concerns about the effects of the potential problems. They allow the salesperson to understand the problem’s urgency and explore its potential effect on the customer. For example, “What effect does this have on your cleaning staff?” “What effect does this have on your customer satisfaction?”

According to Rackham, the Need-Payoff question is the fourth type of question asked by successful sales people. The purpose of these questions is to get the customer to tell which benefits they anticipate. For example, “If we could provide a seamless stain resistant floor, how would that help you?” It may seem obvious to you, but the key is having the prospect say it to himself.

The best professional salespeople across the nation are also the most curious. They don’t just ask questions, they ask the right questions. They constantly study the sales process and take a real interest in their prospects’ motivations and wants. They critique their own performance after each appointment and look for areas to improve upon. Through studying the sales process, you can become a better communicator through questions.

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