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The Art and Sciene of the Question

In Sales it's not all about the Question

Can you imagine human interaction without the question? 
The need and ability to question drove civilization and culture since earliest biblical days of mankind.   Ironically, the first question recorded in the Bible came from a crafty snake trying to sell a woman an apple. (Genesis 3:1)  I guess this illustrates two points.  First, we humans are a questioning lot.  And, talking snakes make better sales people than accountants.

All joking aside… For sales people, questions power communications on a number of different levels.  Questions:

  • Allow us to gather data critical to our future sales efforts
  • Facilitate the testing of information later
  • Build a bridge to opening meaningful dialog
  • Demonstrate interest in the customer on a one to one basis

Scientific surveys indicate top salespeople spend far less time talking than their less successful counterparts.  According to one study, the most successful sellers spend 80% of their time with customers listening.  The customer talks – they listen.  So, why does the customer talk?  Well, partly because the salesperson asked powerful questions.

But they did more than just ask questions, they listened, reacted and asked still more questions. But the question (no pun intended) becomes; is this trait a natural born reaction or a developed skill?  Based on my own observation, it’s a skill.

So what goes into developing the skill for asking questions and then listening?
Many people naturally fall short in question skills because during the excitement of a sales situation, they grow nervous and “ramble”.  In those instances it’s natural for people to fill in silent voids with product pitches.  During countless coaching calls, I see salespeople launch into 10 minute rambles on product features.  And, they end the whole thing up with their version of power question, “Is there anything I need to do for you before I leave?”  Somehow I believe there has to be more.

What do we need to know?
The only way to prepare for asking the right question is to think of exactly what you need to know – before the call.   I call them exploratory points.  Ever notice those little note cards that great interviewers have as they speak to the stars?  David Letterman has them, so does Larry King.  Watch closely and all the great interviewers have them.  Guess what, these hold lists of points that need to be explored.  Not specific questions, but ideas waiting to be discussed.

The exploratory points we need as salespeople are a combination of personal background, business data and customer opinions.  Let me break this down with some examples.

Exploratory Points from Questions
Personal Background Business Data Opinions
Married or single Cost of downtime Customer likes to be cutting edge   
Family data Equipment is essential to the operation View on training
Hobbies Number of shifts worked Thoughts on outsourcing
Likes and dislikes                         Buying habits Value of corporate guidance

Harvey MacKay ran an envelope company in Minneapolis.  The envelope business was/is cut throat.  He reasoned that if he knew the customer better than anyone else, he could improve his chances of success.  Harvey developed a master list of things MacKay Envelope salespeople should know about their customers.  It first appeared in best seller “How to Swim with the Sharks without Being Eaten Alive” and I love it.  Here is a link to this pull down your own copy.

But, sometimes we don’t even need to ask the question
Many times questions can be answered without even physically asking the question.  For instance, if during the first minutes of our initial meeting I say, “Glad you are here a little early.  As soon as we are done I’m taking my kids and wife out to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.”  Is there really a need to ask me if I have a family or asking about my weekend plans?  By thinking ahead, we prime ourselves for answers –without questions.  We acquire important information that can later be used to develop our relationship or decide how to approach the customer.

The real key is improved listening 
When we have an idea of what we need to know ahead of our meeting, we listen more attentively.  We are filling in the blanks and paying close attention to the customer.  They sense we are earnestly interested and tell us more.  Our body language and facial expressions send deeply felt messages that – this guy actually cares.  They are encouraged to tell us more.

A photographic memory?
In my training practice, I ask my clients to build a list of all the things they are committed to know about the customer.  One young sales person put together a list of nearly 50 points he felt important enough to know about his customers.  He was dedicated to doing it – I could tell.  And, he was responsible for 60+ accounts.  This equates to a whole lot of information.  Unless you are clinically diagnosed with a photographic memory, it needs to be recorded. 

To me the standard composition book is the 99 cent sales marvel.  It’s easy to carry, hard to loose and the pages can be used for words, diagrams and numbers.  Plus it carries yet another advantage – the pages don’t (easily) come out.  Standard legal pads almost encourage you to rip out a page and potentially lose important information.   For instance, you take detailed notes and pass the information to one of your co-workers via ripped out page.  Days later, something happens – and your critical information is gone, gone, gone.

If you are making notes on 3M Post-it Notes, quit!  These lend themselves to easy loss and mix-ups. Plus, they’re too small to hold substantial information.  They look messy and they really aren’t designed to be used over a long haul.

There is an added bonus of using the composition book for notes.  One simple phrase can really encourage a customer to talk.  “Do you mind if I take notes?” really sends a signal that you are serious about listening.

But none of this was about questions
Fifty percent of the question issue comes from not fully understanding what you want to know prior to the actual selling situation.  We prepare our minds for the questions by understanding what we need to know before we contact the customer.

A parting thought
I know I promised an article on Questions, and ended up talking primarily about listening.  We cover question types in detail in our Sales Leadership Subscription presentation “The Art and Science of the Question”.  If you would like to learn more about this short course in perfecting questions, give us a call.



The Sales Leadership Subscription is a year long journey in sales skill creation. 

As you follow the step by step program you notice how your organization begins to develop its own sales process.

Explore the topics covered

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Early each month The Sales Leadership Subscription arrives at your location via mail.  It’s easy to use - the program is loaded onto a single high quality CD.  Pop the disk into your computer and a menu starts up automatically.  From there, it’s all easy to run and takes an absolute minimum of computer skills.  The whole program will require between 15 and 30 minutes of your reguarly schedu

Each monthly installment of The Sales Leadership Subscription contains:

  • A professionally done PowerPoint presentation with a “voice over”
    Just click play and this presentation comes to life.  A professionally created presentation covering a completely different aspect of the sales skill set. 
  • The same PowerPoint presentation for your own discussion
    Many sales managers find they enjoy leading the sales discussion.  This presentation is prepared and ready to use.  By adding your own personal touch and company culture to the presentation, your own prestige as a sales leader is enhanced.
  • Discussion Tools
    Simply print these out on your own company letter head and use as “talking points” to turn the presentation into a lively discussion
  • Reinforcement Tools
    These are the questions and comments which allow managers to send a message – we have a process and I am going to hold you accountable.
  • Articles and commentary by industry experts
    River Heights Consulting often includes copies of articles which we prepared for some of the leading trade publications of our industry.  Frank Hurtte and his team are noted experts in the field of knowledge-based distribution sales.    



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