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A Few Questions About...Questions

SINCE THIS IS a book about questions, let's start with a few:

What, exactly, is a question? Why do we ask them? Why do we answer them? And why are they such a powerful selling tool?

I like to think of a question as a 'truth-seeking missile'. And that's why a sales strategy that's built on questioning is so powerful. The best way we can create value for our customers, our companies, and ourselves is to get to the truth. Much time and money is wasted by salespeople trying to sell the wrong people the wrong solutions to the wrong problems.

As we all know, buyers don't always tell the truth. Sometimes they hold back on purpose—to be polite, to get rid of you, to gain some perceived advantage over you, or to protect themselves. More often, buyers don't tell you the truth because they don't know it. They haven't done the hard work to truly understand their own wants and needs.

We tend to take questions for granted. But if you stop and think for a moment, something very strange happens when we ask a question: 'We usually get an answer'. In fact, it's hard 'not' to answer a question. People even feel compelled to answer questions when it would be better to remain silent. Consider, for example, the familiar Miranda warning that we all know from police shows: Suspects actually have to be 'reminded' that they don't have to answer the police's questions. Yet many do so anyway.

There's something deeply embedded in the human mind that creates a powerful compulsion to answer questions. If someone asks a reasonable question in a reasonable way, and for reasonable reasons, it's almost unthinkable to refuse to answer. It would be seen as a rude, almost antisocial act.

All human knowledge starts with questions. Nearly every profession and field of knowledge begins with a question. Detectives ask, "Whodunit?" Journalists ask, "What happened?" Science asks, "How does the world work?" Religion asks, "Why are we here?" Philosophy asks, "What is true?"

Human beings learn, grow, and succeed by exchanging knowledge with other human beings. I believe that questions are rooted so deeply in our psyche because they're the most efficient and effective tool at our disposal for acquiring knowledge. Good questions eliminate the extraneous and get to the heart of things. They allow us to acquire specific, useful, and relevant knowledge from other people. We don't have to download all of the knowledge that another person has kicking around in her brain.

But questions can do more than simply transfer knowledge from one brain to another. The best questions create new knowledge. The person being asked the question doesn't just tell you what he already knows. By considering the question, he discovers something—about his situation, about his values, about his wants and needs—that he hadn't understood before.

That's the transformative power of a question-based selling strategy. Good salespeople use questions to learn something about their buyers. Great salespeople use questions to help buyers learn something about themselves. If you can achieve that, it means you can start solving problems that other salespeople don't even know exist. Even more important, it creates a deep bond between you and your buyer. "This isn't just someone who can sell me stuff," the buyer thinks. "This is someone who helps me grow."

A Hierarchy of Questions

Much of this book is about asking deeper questions—questions that other salespeople might not think to ask, or might even be afraid to ask.

There's nothing wrong with simple, closed-end questions that a buyer can answer with a yes or no—such as, "Did you see an increase in sales last year?" Especially at the beginning of a sales relationship, you need to get some basic information. And simple questions are great for establishing rapport—they're easy for prospects to answer and don't seem threatening.

But that's where many salespeople stop. And if you don't dig any deeper, you'll never have more than a superficial relationship with your buyer. Of course, you have to earn the right to go deep with your buyer. It takes time for buyers to trust you enough to really open up. But when they do, you get to the truth. And a solution that speaks to the truth is a solution your customers will be eager to buy.

Good Questions and Bad Questions

Good questions get you closer to the truth. But some questions can lead you astray. They may create the illusion that you're making progress when at best you're going in circles. At worst, bad questions will drive buyers away. Here are some examples:

Leading questions: "So wouldn't you agree that quality is the most important consideration?" "Don't you want a secure financial future?" Questions like these aren't designed to get the truth; they're designed to get agreement. We learn nothing and the customer feels manipulated.

Lazy questions: "What industry are you in?" "Is this your only location?" This is information we could have gotten elsewhere, so questions like these simply waste your buyer's time.


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