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Nine Rules For Asking Effective Sales Questions

Maybe you haven't noticed, but one of the smartest guys in the business world is blogging for BNET. No, I'm not talking about me (ha!), but about my estimable colleague Wayne Turmel. His BNET blog is Connected Manager, and it's chockablock with good advice for thinking managers.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to spend about an hour with Wayne talking about effective questioning in sales situations. In that interview, he was kind enough to lay out a series of nine rules that, IMHO, every sales professional should know and memorize. Here they are:

  • RULE #1: Consider both content and timing. Effective questioning consists of two parts: 1) knowing what questions to ask, and 2) knowing how to ask them. If you don't know what questions to ask, your time with the customer is just rapport building. If you know the right question but ask them in a way that's irritates or confuses the customer, you won't get the information that you require.
  • RULE #2: Plan ahead, before you ask. Always take time to plan prior to a sales 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 decade. If you go into every sales call with a plan to learn more about the customer, you'll be amazed at the new business opportunities that will crop up.
  • RULE #3. Pursue the six lines of inquiry. These are as follows: 1) What is the current state of the customer's business? 2) What is the desired state of the customer's business? 3) What challenges prevent moving from 1 to 2 above? 4) Which business and personal motivators influence the final decision? 5) What are the resources, authority and budget that can be committed? and 6) What in the past has been tried but failed?
  • RULE #4: Don't hold an inquisition. Customers don't want to be inundated with questions or made to feel that they're on the spot. Rather than trying to get the answers to all these lines of inquiry in a single meeting. It's easier, and more natural, to get detailed and ongoing answers to these lines of inquiry over the course of a series of meetings. Here's a rule of thumb: pick one or two lines of inquiry for every call.
  • RULE #5: Do not script and rehearse. Nothing is more annoying that a sales person reading questions from a list.Instead, prior to the meeting, write down on your notepad some keywords which will remind you of the line of inquiries that you want to pursue. Draw a big circle around these keywords so that your eye is drawn to them. As you guide the conversation to each keyword, put a big "check mark" next to it.
  • RULE #6: Listen first, then ask. When listening to a customer, really listen. Don't spend precious sales call time by watching the customer's mouth move while you formulate what you're going to say next. Listen to the customer, then pause to think about what the customer said, then decide where you want to conversation to go. The customer will interpret the short silence as a sign that you actually are interested.
  • RULE #7: Don't presuppose the answer. Sales reps are often taught to ask questions that lead the customer towards whatever the sales reps is selling. Example: "How can our company help your business?" That's annnoying. 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 #8. Invite customers to speak their mind. As early as possible, invite the customer to speak about whatever is on the customer's mind. Rule of thumb: 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. The point is to start a conversation.
  • RULE #9. Be sensitive to the customer's biases. What's appropriate in a business meeting differs from region to region. For example, in the South, you've got to jaw awhile before getting to business. By contrast, a born-and-bred New Yorker will chafe at idle chit-chat when there's business to be done. Same thing is true in foreign countries. Find out the norm, and then adapt your questioning accordingly.
By the way, Wayne is now specializing in providing advice to companies that want to hold effective webmeetings. His website is Check it out!

For more information on effective questioning, try this post: