Sales: Questioning Skills – Interrogation or Conversation?


Conversation or Interrogation – The Power of Questioning in Sales

I spend a lot of my time coaching sales people and it is no surprise to find that they know an incredible amount about their own markets and products. This knowledge for the most part is coming from trade press, in house information and research on the web, and not as one might think from the clients they are selling to.

Asking questions and interrogating information is key to effective salesmanship, the trick of course is to ask the right questions and the right time, after all not all clients are in the right frame of mind when a sales person calls to answer lots of probing questions. That doesn’t mean they never will, after all, whom do people like to talk about the most? So sales people should never give up. It is also worth mentioning that a sales person will sometimes need to ask questions over a period of time to establish key information, goals, business objectives and problems that they can then assist with and solve with their own products.   Sales managers out there beware of the trap of thinking that a sale can always be closed on the first call. The number of times I hear this is startling I am not saying it cannot be done or indeed that it should be discouraged, just to manage expectations, often the relationship between the client and sales person needs to be nurtured before what I call ‘real trust’ can be established.

What is ‘Real Trust’?

There will come a time when a client will feel a connection with the sales person. This connection can happen when the sales person demonstrates any of the following behaviours.

  • Exceptional listening skills, relaying and confirming back key points and including empathy and understanding
  • Valid statements, opinions or points of views that qualify a deep understanding of the market and how it can affect a client and their business
  • Asking the right questions that create conversation rather than an interrogation. This conversation will then leave the client with the feeling that the sales person was genuinely interested
  • More than rapport, building a relationship whereby the client can be themselves with the sales person without putting up barriers
  • When the sales person is not afraid of creating a sense of urgency and positive tension between themselves and the client so that there is a feeling that something must be actioned quickly and in a relevant way. This is not threatening behaviour, however it can highlight to clients the sense of risk to them should they not take advantage of the offering from the sales person. Oh and this is not about selling unrealistic dreams either it is about understanding issues such as the famous phrase by Henry Ford, “a man stopping advertising to save money is like not winding a clock to save time.” That type of thing, gentle yet persuasive.

Questioning skills a two phased approach.

There is a process to asking questions of a client in whatever field of sales one finds oneself. The first part is to identify the key subject areas pertinent to the client. In advertising for example these might be.

  • Aims and Objectives of the clients business
  • Regionality and seasonality creating trends
  • Advertising history and ideal solution to reach or be found by their clients
  • The audience or customers of the clients and how they retain them once they have them
  • How much money they spend and how frequently
  • Budget for Advertising
  • Who the client competes against
  • The product or services they offer and what makes them unique and buyable from them, over their competition right now.

By asking questions around these key subjects you will limit the number of objections relating to that subjects too. Notice how for each area you could create an objection. So if you do not ask questions around budget, a client will say they have none, or if you forget to talk about the seasonality the¥ will say it is the wrong time of year! No surprises there then.

The second part is to have an idea of what questions to ask and how to frame them prior to calling the client. Traditional sales training will claim the use of open and closed questions. Well, to be precise traditional sales training says only use open and not closed questions. This is shortsighted as a closed question such as “so you are saying that the majority of your clients come from the North East?” is good as it confirms a point. Other questions include ‘true open’ question such as ‘tell me about’, ‘describe to me’ or ‘show me how” help to create more flow between buyer and seller. Explicit framing such as the use of the words ‘exactly’ ‘precisely’ and ‘specifically’ can really help a client get to the point. Finally if you want to get really in depth try using meta positioning based phrases like “I were you” in a question e.g. “If I were you and I ran your business, what would be the most important thing to focus on right now?.” Or “if I were a potential client of yours, what would make me choose you over your competitor?”

By planning questioning this way, a sales person can really establish some terrific information that can then be translated into a relevant pitch, proposal or presentation that will resonate with the client putting them into a much stronger position to win the business.

Expressing an Opinion or Viewpoint

There are times when all this questioning can really help establish the client’s ‘need’. This is what sales training teaches people to do. However, it could be said that some clients do not have a need or do not really know what their need is. So it is worthwhile thinking about what is happening in a market and shaking things up a bit by offering a point of view or standpoint to a client to get them thinking. The Challenger Sale by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson advocate this behaviour. Further more they actually categorise sales people into five types. The Relationship Builder, the Hard Worker, the Problem Solver, the Lone Wolf and The Challenger. It is obvious what each one specializes in by their name, but only the latter two thrive in a complex sales environment, hence why offering opinions and creating positive tension can be beneficial. The balance of the Challenger style of selling is that many sales people find it most effective during cold calls, and do not use it on established clients. This is because they are concerned about breaking rapport, and established trust; in fact it has opposite effect and can reinforce and shore up trust no end. I use it myself a great deal and have found it very successful.

A Final Thought…

One last thing on questioning, it is vital to ensure you have all the right information in place before you proceed with making recommendations. I cannot take credit for this little tip, my good friend and mentor Gerry taught me this. Once you have completed your questioning and then confirmed the salient points back, just drop in a quick “is there anything you think I have missed?” or “is there anything else I need to know?” you will then get a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in reply as it is a closed question, and a bloody good one too., and in this case you are looking for a ‘no’. It would be called a ‘positive no’ as it gives you permission to move on with the pitch. Give it go. I use it all the time whether selling or buying as it stops any nasty surprises.

Based on this, and whether you are pitching to a new client or an existing one, take the time to plan some killer questions you might be surprised at how much trust you can build with a client and how much easier it is to pitch in a relevant way winning you more business and helping your client make more money.

This blog forms part of my sales training programme offered to businesses by SerialTrainer7. If you would like to have a chat about ways to improve your sales teams questioning skills or any other sales skills then please drop me a line at, or call me on 07979 537824.

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