As a parent, I’ve heard this simple, yet powerful, question countless times from my three kids. It’s effective as it forces me to answer, lest they continue to barrage me with follow-up “Why” questions. I have to give more than a “Yes” or “No” response. I also have to provide information explaining my answer. Whether it’s the answer they want or not, my kids will continue to probe. They want to uncover my real objection or position, so they can try to overcome it or change my views. It’s no wonder that the axiom, “Kids make the best salespeople” is not just a catchy phrase, it’s also completely true. My kids, like so many others, are master intelligence operatives.
The same principles hold true in business. Questions are used to obtain critical information to learn what to do, how to do it, when to do it and most importantly, why to do it. Whether it’s acquiring another company, considering enterprise software updates or crafting the company’s long-term strategy, questions play a key role in a company’s ongoing viability.
The right questions get us the information we need to make smart decisions and plot the course forward. This is especially true for marketing and business development professionals. Uncovering prospect needs is a key success factor in the sales process. When you don’t ask the types of questions that elicit the right answers (information), it’s difficult to create value for the prospect. If you can’t demonstrate value, the risk of not getting the sale increases. As I summarized in a previous post discussing the concept of selling Benefits vs. Features, Value = New Business.
Finding value when conversing with prospects is about asking the right types of questions. Closed-end questions that allow prospect to answer with “Yes” or “No” won’t cut it. Open-end questions (also known as “power questions”) are thought provoking and result in key details that facilitate the sales process. One important, albeit basic, thing to remember: when you’ve asked a power question, stop talking, listen and take notes. This does two things: (1) shows the other party that you’re actually interested in what they have to say and (2) helps you remember important details later.
To get the information you need to build value and new business, ask power questions that:
- Make them think before responding. Like the above example with my kids, when you ask questions that don’t encourage only “Yes” or “No” answers, you’ll obtain the information you need.
- Qualify needs. If you can’t uncover a prospect’s needs, it’ll be hard to create value that entices them to move forward.
- Compels your client or prospect to consider new information. By making them evaluate other details (downstream impacts, other possible stakeholders, etc.), you’re demonstrating value…the kind that comes from experience.
- Focus on personal and company goals. One of the best ways to add value is by helping the decision maker, and their company, meet goals.
- Distance your company from the competition, not tie them together through comparison. Power questions allow you to cleverly highlight how your products and services add value by identifying their unique value, while indirectly illustrating the competition’s shortcomings.
- Touch on improved operating efficiency, productivity, revenue and cost savings. Asking power questions with this focus will allow you to simultaneously uncover needs and the product or service benefits (not features) they’ll find most valuable.
While there are countless examples of power questions that should be asked, for the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on a few. An important note: ask questions from a positive perspective.
For example, don’t ask something like, “What don’t you like about …”.
Reframe it as, “What would you change about…?”.
The first question will only elicit a negative reply. However, the second example prompts the other person to think about how they’d change things for the better. It’s a slight difference in wording, but a powerful difference in the tone and result.
Below are examples of a few power questions you can ask (and a few non-power questions that you shouldn’t ask). I have the financial services industry in mind for my sample questions, though as you can see, they are easily adaptable to other industries.
Ask This: To what extent is outsourcing a part of your company’s business model?
Not This: Does your firm do any outsourcing?
Ask This: What’s been your experience with accounting platforms like (insert service provider names)?
Not This: What accounting platforms do you currently use?
Ask This: How does your firm determine which trading or reporting systems to use?
Not This: Do you use (insert service provider)?
Ask This: What is one thing you’d change about previous system implementations?
Not This: Are you satisfied with previous system implementations?
Ask This: What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of a new product or software implementation?
Not This: What usually goes wrong during an implementation?
Ask This: To what extent does a new client improve profitability?
Not This: Is a new client worth a lot to your company?
Ask This: In what ways have regulatory or client initiatives influenced project decision-making?
Not This: Do business needs change project decision-making?
Ask This: What makes your firm choose one product over another?
Not This: What would it take to get your business?
Ask This: How will the decision be made?
Not This: Are you the person that makes the decision?
In the movie, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, Indiana Jones is told by a centuries-old knight to choose the cup from which he will drink water from the fountain of youth. After a brief, but harried deliberation, Indy chooses a cup and gulps down the water. The Knight looks at him and says, “You have chosen…wisely.” The same applies to the questions you ask client and prospects.
Ask (wisely) and you shall receive.