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Types of Questions Your Salespeople Ask

November 12, 2000
Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Featured Article
In a problem solving, consultative approach to selling, appropriate questionscan be sorted into three categories: transactional questions,needs-clarification questions, and problem-analysis questions. Here is anexplanation of each:

Transactional Questions

Transactional questions are fact-finding questions. They provide you with"account specifications." If you were selling material or equipment tomanufacturing companies, these would inquire about such things as annual sales,the amount of material the customers buy, who they buy from, how they buy it,who makes decisions, and what price they pay.

You already ask these kinds of questions, as do your competitors.Transactional questions are important, and you have to ask them. However, theydon't always reveal a lot about the customer’s needs. They don't delve deeplyinto less obvious needs or tell you much more than you could surmise without thecustomer's help.

Needs-Clarification Questions

As the name implies, these are the questions you ask to uncover customerneeds. I don't mean just the expressed needs at the shallow end of the pool. Thesmart, brave salesperson will swim to the deep end and pull up severalcomplicated needs floating there hoping to be noticed. And the rest of the teamcan swim along to ask the questions the salesperson might be reluctant to ask.

There are three subsets of needs-clarification questions: strategic,speculative, and current events.

  1. Strategic Questions: These questions have their roots in the world ofstrategic planning. Strategic planners like to ask the CEO or executive vicepresident or general manager to speculate about changes they anticipate in thebusiness or the world in general and their world in particular. The rationaleis to force thinking about issues that businesspeople typically aren't focusedon in their day-to-day activities.

    As salespeople we can apply a similar rationale in order to be moreconsultative. That is, we can use questions to help customers think in broaderterms and get them out of the short-term, tactical mind set.

    Many organizations have used a strategic-planning model known as SPOT, whichstands for

    • Strengths
    • Problems
    • Opportunities
    • Threats

    In the past, many organizations have used SPOT as the basis for a discussionamong company leaders. Talking about the strengths and problems of their companyforced them to look at internal issues. Discussing opportunities and threatscompelled them to look at external factors. The result was the development ofmuch good information to use in developing the strategic plan.

    You can use a similar approach in selling to uncover customers' deep needs.Asking customers to talk about their strengths will allow you to figureout what they see as the critical points of difference between them and theircompetitors. For example, "What were some of the reasons that your marketshare increased 3 percent last year?"

    Questions about problems should be asked in a more careful manner.They often benefit from the use of pre-question statements. When the climate isappropriate, and customers feel comfortable with you, getting them to talk aboutproblems can b somewhat cathartic for them -- and enlightening for you. Forexample, "Most brand extensions fail. I know you had one or twodisappointments this year. Could you tell me what you think caused thesedisappointing rollouts?"

    Opportunity questions are strategic questions that invite customers tolook at some area of their business they might not have investigated yet. Thesequestions require some homework on your part, because in order to ask them youmust know what is going on in the industry as well as what the customer isdoing.

    As an example, if I were selling pharmaceuticals to cattle breeders, and hadread about an impending decline in beef consumption, an opportunity questionmight focus on whether the company had even thought about adding chickens to itsproduct line. Even if the question is off base, asking it would show that I wasthinking about the customer's situation (empathy again) and might well open thedoor for other questions.

    With both problem questions and opportunity questions, resources can play asignificant role. Think about a marketing research person asking about aparticular growing market segment, or an engineer asking about the age of theequipment in the plant. To repeat a point made before: One of the great benefitsof organization-wide selling is the ability to use your resources to help duringthe situation-analysis-needs/determination process. Your colleagues from otherfunctional areas will ask questions you never would have thought of. Use them!

    Questions about threats are more complicated, proactive questions thatask customers to talk about the risks and challenges they face. You should askthese kinds of questions only when a customer feels safe with you. Not everyoneis comfortable talking about whether they feel threatened by the possibility ofa hostile takeover or a competitor's aggressive comparative advertisingcampaign.

    When asking these kind of questions, then, it makes sense to proceed withcaution. Realize, too, that not only are these questions provocative, but theyalso require the customer to think. So, as a rule, don't ask the customer morethan one or two threat questions on a single visit.

  2. Speculative Questions: Speculative questions guide customers to thinkabout what they would like to see happen, and then what they expect to happen.Usually, people get skittish when they're asked to think beyond "thenorm." When we assist them in stretching the usual limits, we can createa new selling paradigm that differentiates us from our competitors. Here aresome examples:

    • "What would you most like to change in the way you do business?"
    • "How do you think your customers are changing?"
    • "What is your best guess as to what interest rates will do?"
    • "If you could change anything about your current supplier, what wouldit be?"

    It's a terrific feeling when the customer is talking freely because he or shefeels comfortable working with you. At these times, I suggest encouraging yourcustomer to ask for what they want, as opposed to what they think they shouldexpect. It's amazing how they'll open up. This technique is analogous to theSynectics method of asking people to use "I wish" in problem-solvingsessions.

    Part of speculating is having the customer speculate about you:"Something I'd really like to know is, What do you expect from me? Whatwould be an example of the kinds of things salespeople have done for you in thepast that demonstrated they were the kind of people you wanted to workwith?"

    I don't suggest asking questions like these before you gain the customer'strust, but I do recommend asking them early on in the relationship. They canhelp you get a real understanding of a customer's preexisting expectations.Again, you can use your resources to help with speculative questions. Seniormanagers love to ask these kinds of questions, and customers are often flatteredwhen they are asked for their opinions. R&D types, strategic planners,marketing people, and even business analysts can ask speculative questions. Whatwill turn up are deep needs -- needs that your competitors may never hear about.

  3. Current Events Questions: Current events questions invite customers totalk about what is happening in the marketplace, the economy, the country, andthe world, and how it is affecting their business. If I ask a shoemanufacturer how he is coping with pricing pressure due to the high number ofimports, or ask a software manufacturer how the potential breakup of Microsoftaffects his business, I demonstrate credibility and show that I've done myhomework, and I open up avenues to finding out about deep needs.

Problem-Analysis Questions

These are open-ended questions designed to get buyers talking about aparticular problem. These questions ask buyers to give some background and toexplain why something is a problem, their prior thinking about the problem, andwhat they hope can be done about it. Notice these are the same questionsSynectics suggests asking the problem owner in a creative problem solvingsession. They work well in problem solving selling, too.

Problem-analysis questions are most likely to be asked with existingcustomers when the customer has expressed a problem and you want to offer ideas.This is an ideal place to use problem-solving methodology. Get the answers tothe four questions just mentioned, and you'll have more than enough informationto start generating ideas

Copyright © 2000 by Eric Baron. Reprinted with permission of PrimaPublishing from the book Sellingis a Team Sport by Eric Baron. All rightsreserved.

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