As Schein defines it, “Humble inquiry is the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”
How does this differ from the typical form of questioning used in sales? First, let’s assume that the salesperson actually asks questions and listens to the answers, which is definitely not a given.
Assuming that the salesperson goes so far as to ask questions, the typical approach is to ask a few qualifying questions up front, identify problems/opportunities that fit with their advantages, possibly diagnose why the problems exist, and then provide insights in the form of solutions. Or, they can work through a specific methodology such as SPIN. There are two common threads in all these questioning approaches: first, the salesperson asks them with a specific goal in mind, and, second, it’s important to keep control of the conversation.
That’s why salespeople are often told not to ask a questions to which they already know the answer, as if they are cross-examiners in a criminal trial. In this way, they can keep control of the direction of the conversation, which puts them in a “one-up” position.
But what if being in control interferes with a trusting climate, or prevents the client from saying something that may actually shed better light on the situation? In that case, the salesperson may solve the wrong problem, or solve the right problem before the client is ready to act on the solution.
Notice the stark difference between directed questioning approaches and humble inquiry, which requires that the questioner “access their ignorance” and sincerely ask the most open-ended of questions, those which may totally surprise them with the answers given.
Humble inquiry begins with open inquiry, which is simply gaining a sufficient understanding of the client’s situation, without an agenda. Your goal here is to ask and listen, without judging or formulating responses. This is important for two reasons. First, being too highly focused on what you want to find out can easily obscure important information which may be necessary to uncover and solve the real problem at hand. Second, it impairs the development of trust, because the client senses your agenda and is on guard for the other shoe to drop.
How to use humble inquiry in sales conversations
Schein does not address sales situations specifically, so the rest of this article represents my own thinking on how humble inquiry can be used during a sales conversation.
First, should you even use it? If so, when is it appropriate, and how should it be used?
Your ultimate goal is to make a sale, so why not proceed directly on the path that will take you there, instead of wasting time in aimless conversation? It seems like poor use of the precious time you actually have with them. The second concern is that no salesperson likes to lose control of the conversation, and it’s easy to think that listening without an agenda is a form of unilateral disarmament which will lessen your chances of making a sale.
The answer to the first concern is that except for automated computer trading algorithms, no purchasing decision is based entirely on 100% logical, quantifiable reasoning. The person sitting across from you is a real human being with real – and unique – human needs, feelings, quirks, and aspirations, and they like to feel important and valued. One of the best ways they do is to have others actually take an interest in them. That good feeling may make a difference in the immediate sale, and be a basis for a fruitful long-term relationship.
As to losing control, that could happen if humble inquiry were the only tool you had to bring to the conversation. But, just because you start with it does not mean that you can’t switch to your other questioning approaches at the appropriate moment – in fact you will have to switch at some point. When you feel the discussion has arrived at the right point, you can phase into your diagnostic and expert roles.
Another approach is to listen carefully to the client and then use what Schein calls “constructive opportunism”, which is your ability to recognize conversational openings that you can jump into, to explore something further, or probe to uncover additional needs. Based on your expert knowledge of how your product or service addresses typical customer needs, you will probably hear plenty of keywords that indicate POCR: problems, opportunities, changes and risks. The benefits of this are that it’s less disruptive to the natural flow of the conversation, and the issues that emerge are the client’s own ideas.
Keep in mind that if you decide to try humble inquiry in your sales conversations, it will not be easy, as I’ve been discovering. You will have to overcome habit, culture and human nature. Our sales habits lead us to pounce on perceived needs; our culture values doing and telling; and our natural human instinct is to claim higher status that comes from showing how smart we are. But if you can persevere through the difficulties, you stand a better chance of providing help that is truly helpful, and isn’t that worth the effort?
 Part 1 was based on Schein’s first book, Helping. That book also explains the humble inquiry approach. Unless you really want to dig deeply in to the topic, you don’t have to read both books. I would recommend Helping if you only want to read one.