I used to love answering, but now I love asking!

In middle school, I was always the most eager student in class to answer teachers’ questions. At one point, I raised my hands so frequently that some teachers basically ignored me. Being able to answer questions, I thought, evidenced intelligence and knowledge. But I was wrong.

Through high school and college, I realized that the more I know, the more I don’t know. There are always people who are more intelligent and knowledgeable than me; there are always business concepts I never heard of; there are always new technologies I yet to know… This “inferiority list” is endless (“人外有人,天外有天” in Chinese), but it no longer bothers me.  Why? (1) I can always ask questions and become more knowledgeable; (2) I don’t need to know every single thing – that’s why a team exists.

Since we are talking about asking questions, I have to share this symbolic photo – Temple University Class of 2016 three students who asked the most questions during Wednesday Gamma Iota Sigma meetings (a professional fraternity for risk management & actuarial science students).

We have questions!
From left to right: Sean Miller (actuary at Mercer), Zilong Zhao (actuary at Cigna), and Colin Anderson (actuary at Liberty Mutual)
Questions that Sell is a highly practical field book on effective questioning. This great book was written for salespeople, but it’s relevant to non-sales professionals; all of us are selling every single day. When you go for an interview, you’re selling yourself as a valuable employee; when you go on a date, you’re selling yourself as a desirable partner; when you persuade your friends to try out a new restaurant, you’re selling your idea; when you clicked on the link to this book review article, I sold you the idea of reading it. 

I. Why ask questions?

  • Psychologically, make your “clients” (anyone you are “selling” to) feel important;
  • Help your “clients” be more aware of their needs and thus come to their own conclusions the need to take actions;
  • Understand how decisions are made by the client/client’s company: knowing the influencers in the decision-making process allows you to satisfy a blend of needs.

II. How to ask to sell?

  1. Getting to know the “clients” – appeal to ethos (credibility): convince the other person it’s worthwhile to talk to you.
    • Start the initial meeting with introductions & pleasantries, and the purpose of your meeting.
    • Before asking any questions, remove any assumption about prospective clients and their problems.
      • Why do lots of new salespeople have beginner’s luck? Not knowing too much about the industry, they have no assumptions, thus ask clients lots of questions.
    • Begin “questioning” with warm-up questions to get clients talk about themselves.
      • “What would your best customers say are the reasons they enjoy doing business with you?”

    • Capture all critical information your prospective clients provide by writing them down. Personally, I love taking notes during meetings – it helps me stay focused and stimulated, allowing me to ask better questions.
  2. Ask the right questions:

III. What to ask?

  1. Get to know prospective clients:
    • Questions about the past: to understand their priorities, motives, and behaviors through knowing the problems they have in the past.
      • “What originally led you to work for this company? What were your expectations when you came on board, and how have they changed since you’ve been here?”

    • Questions to uncover problems: to sell is to solve problems, and as trusted advisors, salespeople shouldn’t point out a problem – you should facilitate the thought process to help clients discover it themselves.
      • “What would you say is the biggest challenge/problem your organization currently experiences? Why?”

    • Questions to disrupt existing vendor relationships: focus on the criteria your prospect has when selecting a vendor, and then explore to what degree his/her expectations are met.
      • “If you think back to when you first chose your current product/vendor, what were your selection criteria? Based on what you know now, how would those criteria change?”

    • Questions to strengthen customer relations with existing clients before they take their business elsewhere.
      • – “What is it that you value most about doing business with me/us?”

        – “What changes do I/we need to ensure greater success for you?”

    • Questions about your customers’ external customers: your clients is speaking to you because they may have external customers to serve. This helps you to put yourself into the client’s shoes and gain a deeper understanding of his/her problems.
      • – “Who are you most valuable customers?”

        – “How do your customers measure success as a result of doing business with you?”

    • Questions of why: but without using the word “why” – which may annoy clients. Knowing their motives helps you to provide individualized service/solutions.
      • “If you can achieve this result, what will it mean to you?”

    • Questions about company culture and decision-making criteria: to understand the inner working of their organizations and allowing you to anticipate issues before they occur.
      • – “How do people feel about working for your company?”

        –  “Can you walk me through your decision-making process?”

        –  “Share with me the criteria you use when selecting a …”

    • Questions abouts competition and trends: force your clients to think about the future while critically analyzing their present situation and ask themselves “Can I get where I want to go with what I have now?”
      • – “How do you differentiate yourself from your competitors?”

        – “How do you picture the direction of the industry and what could cut into your share of the market?

  2. Qualifying questions: prospects may ask you to do things (send more info, call back, give a demo, etc.), but with little intention to buy. You have limited time and resources, so it’s important to qualify – assess if the sales opportunity is legitimate or waste of time helps you to prioritize. Follow the three-step process of Aggree-Clarify-Legitimize. [Why qualify & prioritize? Remember the 80/20 Pareto Principle?]
    • Agree: find something in the client’s response that you agree.
    • Clarify: get more details about the response.
    • Legitimize: determine if the prospect if sincere by “asking a question that will project your prospective customer into the future and will allow you to make evident any potential obstacles to an agreement.”
    • Three-Step Qualifying Questions
  3. Lock-on questions: zero in on a specific point of interest and clarify your clients’ thoughts and feelings. Identify keys phrases such as “we’ve been trying to” “having difficulties” “goals” “looking for”, and steer attention to these important points of interests by:
    • – “Help me understand…”
      – “When you said the word…”

  4. Impact questions: to encourage change by helping your client quantify the problem/impact.
    • “When you have these difficulties with quality, how much does it cost you to fix them?”

  5. Vision questions: allow your clients to visualize how great a change can be by taping into their needs and desires for the future and helping them articulate their emotions. Start with the future of the client’s organization, then the client himself/herself.
    • – “If we could eliminate that problem you are currently experiencing, the problem that’s costing you $1 million per year, what effects do you think it would have on your company?”
      – “How would implementing this change affect you personally? What would you be able to do differently?”

    • To take vision questions a step further, you can cater your vision question around your clients needs. The author, Paul, listed a few common needs, but I think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is also appropriate here. For example, if someone is very driven in their career, you may ask:
      • “If those changes in your career were to happen today, how do you think your life would look five years from now?”

IV. Four-step process to handle objections

  1. Find a point of agreement
  2. Offer a question to clarify
    • Uncover the real reasons behind the objections
  3. Educate the customer
    • Provide reassurance that this problem can be overcome by:
      • Show facts/results from a third party
      • “Seeing is believing” – give examples
      • Comparison: help a client grasp a difficult concept and thus feel confident a about making a decision. Compare technical jargon to lower level easy-to-understand ideas.
  4. Secure a commitment
    • Once diffused the situation of objection, work out a plan that satisfy both you and your clients.

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