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Questions, Questions, What Are The Right Questions?

by David Brock on July 19th, 2011

I’ve been involved in a number of conversations about questions recently.  They’ve covered topics like, what are the best questions, what should we avoid, and other areas.  These questions are always difficult to answer, because so much of the time, the best response is, “It depends.”  What may be a bad or inappropriate question in one situation could be good in another  (I think I’ve learned this by asking the right question in the wrong situation).

I thought I’d provide some thoughts on problems I see in sales people’s questioning strategies.  I won’t address questions themselves, but will focus on general categories of questions.

Problem 1:  Asking questions you should have known the answers to before the meeting.  I’m a tremendous fan of Neil Rackham’s SPIN approach to questioning.  However, in today’s business environment, the strategy may be more PIN than SPIN.  If you’ve done the right research and preparation, you probably should have a really good understanding of the situational issues before you walk into the meeting.  Asking these questions both waste time and demonstrate your lack of preparation or understanding of the customer.  You won’t be able to totally eliminate them, but you should be able to focus more narrowly on a few key questions.  For example, years ago, with one client, in virtually every first meeting, they asked the questions, “What are your company’s strategic priorities and how do they impact your (function/job)?”  Even then, it was a marginal question, but today for most organizations, you should have some idea of the strategic priorities before you walk into the meeting.  If you have done the right work in developing the buyer personas, you should also have some idea of how they impact their function/job.  You may want to ask some questions to validate the issues and to start to quantify the impact — but this is the PIN part.

Problem 2:  Questions focused on setting the trap, not on true discovery.  We’ve seen them before–it’s so obvious it’s almost painful to watch.  The sales person uses her best questioning technique but the questions drive answers that enable the sales person to jump to their pitch.  I was subjected to this today.  She asked me, “Tell me about your copying needs?”  Clearly she wanted me to talk about something related to copiers so she could start pitching her copiers to me.  When I responded, “we don’t need copiers,” she was floored.  She refined her question, “Do you have problems keeping up with the demand, throughput, or do you need certain functions?”  I responded, “You aren’t listening to me, we don’t need copiers so we have no copier needs, what’s your next question?”

We think we are doing ourselves and our customers a favor by narrowing the issue and focusing on questions that result in answers we address with our solution.  But it’s a fundamental error–in reality it’s a the foreword to your pitch, you really aren’t focusing on understanding the customer needs, but finding the excuse to start our presentation.  We are making the questioning about us and not what the customer is really trying to do.

There’s another problem with this approach.  You miss tremendous opportunities.  Recently, I was sitting in on a call a salesperson for my client was making.  The sales person had asked the leading question, the customer responded–you could almost see the sales person salivating, he was getting ready to pounce, the customer was giving him the perfect entry point to the pitch.  The customer paused, the sales person jumped in to begin the pitch….  I interrupted, saying, “Excuse me,” to the customer, “but is sounded as though you had a few other things that you wanted to share.  Would you mind continuing?”

The customer smiled patiently, the salesperson shot me one of those looks (the “why did I get stuck with this consultant” look).  The customer went on.  In the ensuing discussion, the customer laid out a set of issues, problems, needs that were very powerful.  The customer actually needed more than what the sales person was trying to sell—and the salesperson had the solution to the broader set of problem.  But the flawed questioning strategy—focusing on getting the customer to say a few key things would have missed this opportunity.

Questioning is about and for the customer.  It provides the customer the chance to reveal everything about what they want/need, about how they will make a selection, about everything!  We ask questions to get the customer to talk–so let’s give them that opportunity and make sure we listen. 

Problem 3:  Not drilling down.  This is really a subset of problem 2 and the PIN part of SPIN.  It’s the questions that really drill down into what the customer has said, it’s going deeper, it’s peeling things back to get at the real issues, not just the surface issues.  Too often, in our anxiety to move forward (we have to keep biting our tongues to restrain the pitch), we just stay at the surface.  We’re leaving critical issues undiscovered–things that can help both the customer and us have greater insight.  We have to be careful in doing this–we need to be sensitive to the customer’s time–but if we are on the critical issues, they generally give us the time.

Problem 4:  Asking the right questions to the wrong person.  There are two variants of this–both result in embarrassing the customer.  The first is asking an individual a question that is far above her pay grade.  At the extreme it’s, “How do you think buying this box of paper clips will favorably impact the company’s stock price?”  The question is just inappropriate–at least for this person (It’s probably wrong if you’re selling paper clips too.)  It’s frustrating, embarrassing, and meaningless in the context of that person’s concerns.  They don’t have a clue how to answer.  I’ve seen the opposite happen as well.  Imagine calling on a very senior level executive and asking them a very detailed technical question about their solution needs.  I sat in on a call with the number 3 exec of a Fortune 10 corporation.  This person had 10’s of thousands of people in his organization and was responsible for 10’s of billions in sales and billions in his expense budget.  The sales person asked a detailed question about how a certain technology solution would impact the productivity of his engineering teams.  The executive took a deep breath and patiently responded.  “I don’t know, the person in my organization who can answer that and who care’s most about those issues is 5 levels below me.” 

The questions we ask have to be challenging and probing.  But they have to be appropriate for the person we are posing the question to.  Otherwise we are wasting their time, embarrassing them and hurting ourselves.

I’ll stop here–there’s much more to discuss, but these are my top 4 problem areas on questioning.

Are you making any of these mistakes?

What other problem areas would you add?

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