Information gathering ‑ asking the right questions at the right time ‑ is essential to success in sales. Through skillful questioning, you initiate and maintain conversation that leads to sales and builds your image as a professional. No matter whether your prospects are reticent or talkative, your questioning skills will help you to uncover and identify their needs.
Keep in mind the following general strategies as you select the questions to ask present and potential prospects.
Questions must be properly timed. If your prospects are not in the proper frame of mind to receive questions, you will not get accurate or complete answers.
Questions should not be asked too quickly or too slowly; timing is important in getting answers. After asking a question, allow enough time for your client to think and come up with an answer.
Have a questioning plan. Although it is not generally advisable to memorize specifically worded questions that you will ask in a particular sequence to every client, it is productive to have a questioning strategy. You should have a clear idea of what you want to ask in order to get the information required to do a good job.
A list of the points you want to cover allows you to explore fruitful areas as they arise in the conversation. When you leave your planned questions to explore other areas, you can use your list to bring you back on track.
Ask permission to ask questions. This is a good rule of thumb. Even though you feel that you have the right to ask prospects questions in your role as a solution provider, you will find that the simple courtesy of asking permission will put them at ease. Here’s something you might try, “Mr. Wheeler, my philosophy of doing business is ‘Prescription before diagnosis is malpractice.’ I will not propose solutions to you before I fully understand your needs from your point of view. With that in mind, do you mind if I ask you some questions about your needs and goals?”
Move from broad questions to narrow questions. “Can you tell me a little about your financial goals for retirement?” is an excellent example for a financial advisor. This broad, open‑ended question allows your client total freedom to answer whichever way he or she wishes. From the answers, specific needs should become obvious, and you will know how to follow‑up with more specific questions.
Your ability to listen carefully to the prospect’s response will guide your choice of the next question. You should narrow your inquiry based on the prospect’s previous response. For instance, your second question might be, “You mentioned that you would like to invest your pension funds in a small business when you retire. Would you mind elaborating on the kind of business you have in mind?” Subsequent questions may narrow even further to explore in more detail the needs and concerns of your client.
This technique is called building on previous responses. Simply stated, listen carefully before questioning. Rather than becoming preoccupied with what you want to ask next, and missing most, if not all, of what your prospects are communicating to you, concentrate on what they say. This information can be used to frame subsequent questions based on your prospect’s previous responses. By building on previous responses, you get the opportunity to explore your prospects areas of interest rather than your own.
Use common language. Keep your questions free of slang and technical jargon that may or may not be understood by your prospects. In addition, avoid flowery, formal or legal language.
Questions should not be manipulative or forcing. They should not limit your client’s personal autonomy, force them into an answer, or put them on the spot. “How do your mornings look for a meeting this week?” is an excellent way to accomplish this.
Provide a rationale for sensitive questions. When you must touch on sensitive areas, be sure to explain why you are asking the question. Pursuing the line of questioning for a financial advisor, an example might be, ” Mr. Wacht, choosing the beneficiary of your insurance policy is a very important item that should be taken quite seriously. If your wife is a good money manager, you should consider naming her the beneficiary. If not, you might consider a life insurance trust as the beneficiary so you can be assured of professional money management of the insurance proceeds after your death. With that in mind, I need to ask you a confidential question–How skilled a money manager is your wife?”
Maintain a consultative atmosphere. Remember that your ultimate role in the sales process is that of an advisor. Do not ask questions in an interrogative, rapid‑fire manner; you are not a prosecutor with your prospects on the witness stand. Use a relaxed and quiet tone of voice, giving prospects time to contemplate your questions ‑‑ even if it means a period of silence. By pausing and allowing them time to think, you will get more accurate and complete replies. Allow your prospects to completely answer each of your questions without interrupting.
In order to help prospects solve their problems, you have to uncover those problems. By mastering the fine art of questioning, you fill the role of problem-solver, counselor and consultant. The final result is more sales and more satisfied customers.