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8 Rules for Asking Effective Questions

Effective questioning means knowing what questions to ask the customer, and knowing how to ask them. If you don't know what questions to ask, your time with the customer is wasted. If you know the right question but ask in a way that's irritating or confusing, you won't get useful information.

With that in mind, here are the eight basic rules for asking customers effective questions:

  • Rule #1: Never meet without a plan. Before meeting with a customer, have some idea of what you want to accomplish during the call. Prior to the call, review your relationship with the customer and identify gaps in your understanding of the customer's business. Even if you've been working with a customer for a long time, you don't know everything that has happened since your last sales call.
  • Rule #2: Never rehearse your questions. You heard me right. Nothing is more annoying that a sales person reading questions from a list. It not only makes you look amateurish but makes it difficult for a conversation to evolve naturally. Rather than rehearsing questions, prior to the meeting write down some keywords which will remind you of what you need to discuss.
  • Rule #3: Never ask stupid questions. Some people say "there are no stupid questions." Those people are stupid, however, because it's idiotic to ask a customer a question that you can find out with a little research on the web. If there's some other way to find a piece of customer information, use it. Don't waste face time with a customer going over public knowledge.
  • Rule #4: Never give the third degree. Customers don't want to be on the receiving end of an inquisition. Rather than trying to find out everything in one meeting, pick two lines of inquiry for each sales call and set a goal to get good answers for at least one of those lines of inquiry. For example, on the first call, focus on understanding the management chain, but leave the buying process for the next meeting.
  • Rule #5: Never talk more than you listen. Goal-focused sales reps like questions and answer sessions to move quickly, so that the conversation can move to the deal-making. But what's the point of asking effective questions if you're not going to listen to the answers? Listen to the customer, then pause to think about what the customer said, then decide where you want to conversation to go.
  • Rule #6: Never ask leading questions. Sales reps are taught to ask questions that lead the customer towards whatever the reps are selling. (Example: "How can our company help your business?") Such ploys, however, are transparent and laughable. Instead couch your question in neutral terms that allow the customer "room" to give you the information that you need. Example: "In a perfect world, what would your vendor be doing for you."
  • Rule #7. Always invite customers to speak their mind. As early as possible in the conversation, invite the customer to speak about whatever is on the customer's mind. Example: "Yes, I'm here to talk about our super-widget. But what's going on with you? How did that big project turn out?" Chances are that you'll find out more from that conversation than any number of pointed queries of your own.
  • Rule #8: Always ask open-ended questions. Every question you ask the customer should begin with "How...", What..." or "Why..." Don't worry about asking a question that "too open-ended." If your question isn't specific enough, the customer will ask you to clarify. And then you're already in a conversation, which is essential if effective questioning is to take place.
READERS: Did I miss any essential rules?

The above is based on a conversation about effective sales calls I had a few years ago with the ever-amusing and intelligent Wayne Turmel.

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