Some Questions are Stupid – The Right Questions Yields Persuasive Influence

achieve persuasive influence by asking the right questions

In the last post, we looked at a process using questions to identify and build a sales opportunity and selling to the gap.

In addition to building the opportunity, the questions your salespeople use shape their prospect’s mindset and perceptions, allowing them to achieve persuasive influence.

The questions your people ask are important. But so is how they ask their  questions, when they ask them, as well as how they order them. In creating their questions, they need to be cognizant of all of these factors. They want to leverage them to create a favorable environment in their prospect’s mind, conducive to moving the sale forward.

Asking the Right Questions vs. Asking the Easy Question

Let’s return to the car lot example we used previously to show how an effective sales starter can shape the evaluation process.

So there you are, browsing in the open lot, and a salesperson approaches.

“Can I help you?” he might ask. “I’m just looking,” you would say.

Now, you both know you didn’t find your way there by accident. You didn’t just sleepwalk out of bed and end up in a car lot. It’s a stupid question because it doesn’t give the salesperson any relevant information.

He should say: “I’m Lance. And you are?” And you would give your name.

Then he might go on to say: “Really nice to meet you. Listen, if you’re like most of the people who walk onto the car lot, you already know a ton about why you’re here and what you’re looking for. I don’t want to interrupt that thought process, but I just want to give you some idea how we’re set up. Over here are the pre-owned vehicles and over there are the new ones. I’m simply here to answer any questions or comments you might have while you look. Hopefully I don’t waste your time, you get to see what you’re looking for, and you get to ask the questions you need to. Are you looking more for a pre-owned vehicle or a new one?”

In this instance, the salesperson has a better chance at advancing the sale forward. Not only has he used a progression of questions, starting with ‘who are you’ and finishing with an either-or question, but he’s also done a pretty decent job of establishing scope and boundaries.

But if he opens up with a self-centered question like, “Can I help you?” he’s going to lose ground.

And when you lose ground in sales, you lose sales.

The Questioning Process for Selling

Now, take the simple interaction we just ran through and complicate it tenfold to understand the challenges involved in a B2B sale. To navigate the complexities involved, the salesperson must be able to open really well. Part of that goes back to adequately qualifying the prospect. But the next step in influencing the prospect involves the salesperson asking the right questions at the right time.

The way the salesperson knows how to ask the right question is to start with the prospect’s current situation. Next,  they will move to asking about the buyer’s desired situation. Then, they will ask about the obstacles. Eventually, the salesperson wants to know about the impact of the desired situation and what that will give the prospect. Remember, no one buys a quarter inch drill bit because they want one. They buy the drill bit because they want a quarter inch hole. You want your people want to discover what the hole will give them.

Here’s the secret sauce.  A skilled salesperson is always trying to see through the buyer’s eyes and can quickly leverage that perspective. Remember, If they can see things through the prospect’s eyes, hey can sell what the prospect buys.  If the salesperson uses this mindset to lead the buyer through this process, they will ask questions in the right combination and the right order and ultimately be a persuasive force in the sales process.

Another Example of the Questioning Process – Selling Fitness Memberships

I recently started working out again, so I decided to seek out a gym. There’s a big Lifetime Fitness near my house that has a pool, a spa, and you can even get your nails done. You can get food there, go rock-climbing, and do yoga. Free weights. Basketball. Cardio equipment. You name it; they have it.

As I proceeded to compare the gym against the local rec center, I discovered that the options were overwhelming. So I sat down with the general manager of Lifetime Fitness. 

He said, “Can I ask you a few questions before I give you the tour? What are you currently doing or not doing as it relates to fitness? I’ll show you what we have and see if we may be a fit. Then we’ll go from there.”

He opened with a great Why Speak Statement. His questions revolved around four things:

  1. How often I work out.
  2. If I had any workout equipment at home.
  3. What I thought I should or could be doing more of. What’s the ideal situation? Meaning, how much I should be working out.
  4. What I was looking for.

“So what’s been holding you back? Why hasn’t that been happening?” he asked.

I said, “Quite frankly, time.”

He nodded. “What else?”

“Probably know-how,” I said. “That’s why I’m here.”

“If you did have that access, what would be the perceived benefit?” he asked.

“I’d be healthier.”

Essentially, the general manager achieved persuasive influence by selling to a gap. He sold to my desired situation, rather than to my current situation. Lifetime Fitness was a vehicle to get from where I was to where I wanted to be. It wasn’t necessarily going to solve the problem, but it was the vehicle to get me there.

As a result of this manager’s skill in using questions in the sales process, both my son and I now have memberships.

Achieve Persuasive Influence Over the Prospect’s Mindset by Asking the Right Questions

Let’s run through an exercise that shows how you can set the environment by asking the right questions: Pick a number between two and nine. If you can’t add, subtract, or multiply, then be sure to pick a low number. Got your number? Now take your number and multiply it by nine. You should have a number with two digits now.

Next, take those two digits and add them together. Whatever that answer is, now subtract five.

Are you with me so far? So with A as 1, B as 2, C as 3, D as 4, and E as 5, select the letter in the alphabet that corresponds with your number. Everybody got it? Now, with your letter in the alphabet, pick a state in the US, or a country in Europe that begins with that letter.

Okay, now using the second letter of your state or country, pick an animal that begins with that letter. For those people counting with their toes, make sure to put your shoes back on.

So did you pick Delaware? Or Denmark?  How about elephant? Or elk? Emu? Eels?

Pretty freaking cool, right?

So who was making all the decisions in that example, you or me? You were! I was just asking questions. You were the one making all the decisions. I simply limited the scope of your selections with each question.

In essence, I set foul lines. I didn’t ask a question that involved you choosing a number from one to a thousand. What I said was, “pick a number between two and nine” because every time we do the math, the end result is always the same.

The Challenge in Sales and Asking the Right Questions

The problem with selling is that most salespeople don’t have a reproducible process to build predictable results from asking questions. Therefore, every time they sit down with a prospect to diagnose a challenge, they start  from ground zero with no map to guide them.

But if you’re being really smart, you go back to your Why Speak Statement. If your agenda is solid and your Why Speak Statement is sound, you’re establishing boundaries from the start.

So as we ask questions, we’ve got to have a process. We’ve got to think about what types of questions we ask and how we ask those questions and lead the buyer towards an answer, much like the Socratic method.

The Socratic Method – Gaining Persuasive Influence by Asking Questions

When trying to get someone to see his point of view, Socrates would engage people in deep dialogues, asking a series of seemingly innocuous questions that slowly created a sense of common ground between him and the other person. Once enough common ground was established, the dissenter had no choice but to agree with Socrates’ perspective.

That’s what made Socrates the ultimate salesman. He understood the process of evaluation. And ultimately, evaluation all comes down to the Sales Song.

Here is how the Sales Song goes. The tune sounds kind of like “The Wheels on the Bus.” Feel free to sing out loud, even if you’re reading this on an airplane. There are bound to be others around you who will join in.

What do they want, and why do they want it;

What do they want, and why do they want it;

What do they want and why do they want it;

all the way to the close!

Salespeople need to ask questions around what their buyer wants and why they want it. And salespeople need to get better at asking the questions that will help them understand their buyer’s needs. Equally important, however, is to influence the prospect to see the wisdom of considering our proposed solution. Show them how your product can resolve their most pressing problem, and you’ll win the deal every time.

For more ideas on using sales questions in the evaluation process, order Lance Tyson’s book, Selling Is An Away Game available on Amazon.com.