Do you believe it’s important to ask questions during a sales call? How many questions do you typically ask? What do you ask about? How does it work for you? Do you see any downsides? Do you think prospects appreciate your questions or do they get tired of them? Do you have questioning fatigue yet?
No one believes more strongly than I do in the power and usefulness of questions during the persuasive process, and those who’ve been through my sales questioning module might think I’ve gone daft when I say this, but I also believe it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Asking too many questions can limit the transfer of information and the productivity of the conversation, and foster a defensive and even adversarial atmosphere.
Questions are not an end in themselves; they are a means to an end. Besides extracting information, the ultimate purpose of questions in a sales call (or any persuasive attempt) is to lead the prospect to the conclusion that they need your solution. You do this by guiding the conversation towards gaps in their current situation, exposing the costs of not taking action, and jointly agreeing on an approach. Think of the conversation as a dance, in which you guide your partner; it’s not a wrestling match in which you are trying to impose your will on them.
To mix in another metaphor, asking too many questions during a persuasive conversation is like stepping on the brakes and making a large turn of the steering wheel any time you want to turn the conversation. As with a car, when it’s rolling in the right direction, a slight pressure on the wheel will nudge it back on course without losing momentum. These slight nudges often take the form of simple open-ended statements and brief probes rather than elaborate open-ended questions.
When the conversation turns into a question and answer session, it can limit the productivity of the conversation because the client may turn passive—like a sulky teenager they will simply give you what you ask for (if that) and nothing more. So, unless you ask exactly the right questions you’re going to leave a lot at the table.
How to use “non-questions” to guide the conversation
There is nothing wrong with preparing an extensive questions list before a call, but don’t get so attached to your questions that you have to ask every one as written. Sometimes a very good first question will get the prospect talking and then you can move the conversation along from there. Your open and closed prepared questions are two indispensable tools in your persuasive toolkit, but they’ll work even better when you add these others:
Begin with a value proposition and agenda. Some of the most productive and profitable sales calls I’ve ever been on involved the customer talking for most of the call with very few questions from me. They gave me the information I needed and more importantly said the things aloud that convinced them they needed my solution. The best way to make this happen is by making it clear to them up front what you hope to accomplish from the meeting—for their benefit—and how you will proceed. The value proposition lets them know they may have a problem/opportunity and you have a solution, and the agenda describes a logical topic flow that will get them there.
Another useful tool is a brief “pre-summary” of what you know about their situation, which you can use to prime the pump and let them add or correct as necessary. You might say, “In order to save you time, would it be OK to give you a brief summary of what I’ve learned about your situation and let you add to it as necessary?”
You can also have a nice change of pace by using open-ended statements instead of questions. Instead of asking the question directly, say “I wonder how it would help if you could…”, “I’m curious about…”
A variation of the open-ended statement is a polite command. “Tell me about your…”
There is an entire set of tools under the rubric of reflective listening that comprise a low-key way of guiding the conversation, including:
Simple silence works surprisingly well. Often the best part of an answer is what the client says after their initial answer. When you have an extensive question list you’ll be tempted to note the answer and go on to the next question. But if you leave room at the end of the answer, even just a second or two of silence, you may be surprised what else comes out.
Of course, it’s also possible to overdo the non- questions. Ideally, you want to mix things up so the conversation stays fresh.
Changing something as fundamental as your conversational style is hard, so just try to be conscious of using variety in the ways you gain information and guide the conversation. I wonder what a difference it would make in your next sales call…
 Experts in motivational interviewing, which is a process that clinical psychologists use to guide clients to their own conclusions, typically use a 2:1 ratio of reflective statements to questions.