The art of powerful questions

“Stay hungry, stay foolish,” once was Steve Jobs’ exhortation and encouragement to a graduating class at Stanford University.

He was imploring the graduation class not to be too easily satisfied or to get too complacent and to have an insatiable desire to learn. The curiosity that needs to be nurtured, he said to the students, is the search for knowledge.

Powerful questioning is based on a genuine curiosity about the customers’ or clients’ world (or anyone you want to build a relationship with). How you can help a customer becomes self evident to you and to them when you ask the right questions and demonstrate genuine interest. The art of powerful questioning isn’t just about open and closed questions – it is based on the intent you demonstrate when seeking to understand someone with whom you want to build a business relationship.

I watched an interview on YouTube where a training consultant from a global sales training provider was very enthusiastically claiming that customers always lie and that it’s the salesperson’s job to quickly find out their real business pain and to uncover what keeps a prospect awake at night.

If that approach and mindset ever worked, it certainly isn’t appropriate in today’s business environment. I understand what sales trainers are trying to do. They want salespeople to sell benefits, not features, to sell solutions to problems and not just go on about their product or service. They don’t want to waste time and want to get straight to the pain points that they think they can provide solutions to.

There are two problems with the “finding the pain” approach: it sounds like manipulation and can feel like a lack of consistency. There is a significant risk that what a prospect hears isn’t, “What keeps you awake at night?” but  “How can I sell you something as quickly as possible?”

The mistake of creating questions to find pain points, to provide the answer you want or to get to the sale as quickly as possible is that the “sales pounce” is an inevitable consequence. At the first sight of a pain point the questions stop and the premature presentations start. 

It becomes more difficult to ask the right questions if you are searching for the answers you want. Some people even believe they should never ask a question they don’t already know the answer to. The problem is that when you ask a question to get the answer you want, or when you ask questions that you already know the answer to, today’s more sophisticated buyers perceive it as manipulative and choose how they answer very carefully.

Constructing the right question lies at the heart of effective communications and information exchange. By using the right questions in a particular situation, you can improve a whole range of communications skills; for example, you gather better information and learn more; you build stronger relationships, and you help others to learn.

To be powerful your questions need to be in context, otherwise your customer or client won’t be motivated to answer in full. Most questions need to be open (where, who, why, when, how, which, tell me, explain to me, describe to me). The longer your question the less power it will have to elicit a full answer and closed questions are really useful for checking your understanding and summarising. When a conversation is littered with closed, yes/no answers you can be sure that the person asking the question is either guessing or isn’t really interested in the answer.

When a client say, “That’s a good question,” you know you are getting them to think – and that is really powerful.

David Tovey is a speaker and author of “Principled Selling – How to Win Business Without Selling Your Soul”, published by Kogan Page.

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