Asking target-oriented sales questions to quickly uncover everything you need to know throughout the sales cycle will enable your percentage of successful outcomes to increase. This article describes questions that you can embed in your sales processes to uncover the truth as quickly as possible. Asking the right questions helps you rapidly find, collect, analyze, and interpret the truth, making the difference between success and failure.
Discovery is the aim of sales questions
Sales discovery is the process of revealing, exposing, or uncovering facts or information. Discovery of a sales opportunity starts with questions about what to find out. For most people engaged in selling, asking sales questions have two objectives.
1) To find out which business activities are unworthy of sales resources, or
2) To formulate the highest value solution and gain positive results, including a good order and customer satisfaction.
What you discover —in some cases, whether you discover— depends on your organization’s culture. Is your organization customer-centric or product-centric? The answer goes beyond what is in your company’s mission statement.
For example, one company I know asked a marketing consulting company to capture and share information about their own products the customer wanted to buy, but not about what outcomes those customers wanted.
Their inward-looking perspective cost them sales and opportunities. Discovery processes were not a competency of the marketing consultant team because management didn’t care.
The elements of successful sales questions
The vendor’s commitment to the customer is to recommend the best solution for the customer’s needs. Along with that commitment is a promise to recommend a solution outside of what the vendor provides if it turns out that it meets the customer’s needs best.
- A disclosure of what constitutes success in the engagement for both the B2B customer and the B2B seller.
- An understanding that a successful outcome depends on mutual and ongoing openness and honesty. Anything less will result in underachieved goals for both parties.
- A mutual commitment that all parties must work from facts. Guessing and assuming are counterproductive to achieving the best outcome.
Before you meet with a prospect, prepare the sales questions to ask
Sales discovery is a process – not a single event – and it starts with a roadmap of what you want to find out throughout your sales engagement. If you don’t have a notion of what you want to ask, your prospect will lead you – often to places you don’t want to go. Simple is best: this paper doesn’t profess an ask-in-this-order, clunky, lockstep question structure.
The roadmap simply represents the top sales questions you want to be answered, when, and from what sources you intend to use. Your instinct is the best starting point. What questions are at the top of your list: Will you buy from me? If I choose to work with you, will the time I spend be profitable to me? If we spend time working to solve this problem, will the engagement be mutually valuable?
The challenge is to get to the answers in the shortest amount of time using the fewest sales questions.
Information sources for your sales questions
Business opportunities don’t come with standardized and convenient datasheets, so most key facts must be uncovered methodically. Information sources include:
Primary: Information you must uncover firsthand
Possible sources: Executives and other personnel at your prospect company, former employees of that company, competitors, alliance partners, individuals from your professional network and your company. Primary research will fill many gaps not covered in secondary research.
Secondary: Information that others have uncovered
Possible sources: Industry press, trade journals, blogs, websites, press releases.
|Qualification||Should my company commit resources to pursue a sale?|
|Network and contact||Who must I connect with along the way?|
|Attitude and sentiment||What do my key contacts and opinion leaders think about the value of my product or service?|
|Validation||How accurate is my mission-critical information?|
These sales question groups are used throughout the sales cycle – early, middle, and late. As the sales cycle progresses, the categories are the same, but the questions change along with the reasons for asking them. At a minimum, the roadmap should contain the questions that will yield the highest level of information you seek at predetermined points in the sales process (e.g., pre/post prospecting phase, pre/post-proposal phase; pre/post-forecast phase; pre/post-close phase) and the possible sources for the information.
Sales questions for lead qualification
Here we are — sales qualification questions. For me, these are the best sales questions to ask customers.
Sales qualification uncovers information that results in a specific action – in particular, whether to commit resources to move a lead through the sales process. Lead qualification must be conducted throughout the sales process – especially in the beginning. Because unfiltered leads can cause vast sums of money to be wasted over potentially extended periods.
This financial hemorrhaging can be controlled through effective discovery.
Sales qualification must be tightly connected to an organization’s strategy. Deciding whether to pursue a lead will seem more like a game of luck than skill.
- To qualify a lead, you must know the characteristics of your target customer.
- To know the characteristics of your target customer, you must understand what outcomes they desire.
- To know if your solution can fulfill those outcomes, you must know the value your organization provides.
- To know the value your organization provides, you must know its strategy and the capabilities of your solution.
When business strategies, market targets, and sales goals are synchronous, lead qualification can be managed effectively. Just underneath the question; Should my company devote resources to pursuing this lead? To get an accurate answer to this essential question, you should always ask open ended questions for sales qualification.
Essential sales questions for lead qualification
- Will my prospective customer pay me what I am likely to charge for my product or service?
- Can I get access to the person/people necessary to the people who have the authority to commit and spend the financial resources to procure my product or service?
- Does my prospective customer require my product or service?
- Will my prospective customer purchase from me within a timeframe that matches my planning horizon?
These lead qualification questions can be asked and discovered in any order. A “no” answer to one of these sales questions exposes a business activity that is probably unworthy of pursuing in the short run; a “no” answer to two or more questions reveals the one that definitely should not be pursued.
Types of lead qualification questions
Lead qualification questions have three types.
- Situation questions
- Red flag questions
- Networking questions
As mentioned earlier, the questions “what outcomes does this customer seek?” and “if I choose to work with you, will the time I spend be profitable to me?” are most important to answer at the beginning of the sales engagement.
Understandably, some sales prospects would chafe at such blunt questions. Consequently, some companies have developed a specific set of questions so these answers can be brought into focus before the first direct contact is made.
Specific examples of situation questions:
- What are the target company’s top strategic challenges?
- What competitors does the company face?
- What are the top challenges facing other companies in the prospect’s industry?
- What differentiates the target customer in the market?
- What substitute products might compete with my prospect?
- Who has power in my prospect’s demand chain? Buyers? Sellers?
- What regulatory issues could be impacting their business? How?
- How do my target company’s financial metrics compare to their industry peers? What metrics are they focused on improving?
- What has been the target company’s financial track record regarding revenue, profits, stock price?
The objectives of situation related sales questions
- To ensure that your product or service can solve the outcomes the prospect seeks
- If they can be solved, what should you recommend, and how should you price it?
The highest order for vendor/client alignment is strategic. Two situation questions can help discover your leverage:
- What is the consequence if the identified symptoms are unabated?
- What is the impact on strategy and operations?
Your positioning challenge is being able to say, “acquiring my product or service is a strategic priority for Customer X to execute their business plan.” Why does strategic alignment win over operational alignment, which focuses on revenue improvements or cost reduction?
Because with operational alignment, a competitor can trump your performance projections and pricing. And because strategy is less ephemeral, strategic alignment is far more difficult for a competitor. Therefore, the first task of lead qualification should be to identify strategic alignment followed by operational alignment.
Sales questions for networking uncover information about:
- People who are likely key points of contact
- Organization’s paths of communication
- Patterns of influence and decision-making
This network is often referred to as a social network. A clear understanding of social networks will facilitate a much shorter path to a decision because the sales process can advance only when the right people are involved.
For example, some people look at static organization charts and lists of key executives. They hope for some information that can assist in guessing a company’s decision rights and accountability hierarchies.
Unfortunately, organization charts and lists seldom provide insight into how work really gets done. As a result, they have little value for sales outside of identifying potential key players.
Further, the commonly held belief that connection to “C-Level” executives provides a sustainable competitive advantage is only partly true. According to Rob Cross in The Hidden Power of Social Networks, “Being an effective decision-maker, particularly as you move higher in an organization, means being able to receive diverse information and weigh perspectives and opinions.”
Therefore, knowing an organization’s opinion leaders, influencers, and decision-makers is mission-critical for getting the right answers to qualification, validation, and attitude/sentiment questions.
Because organizations don’t document their social networks, networking questions usually must be answered through primary research, such as face-to-face interviews and phone conversations. In addition, once considered core functions are now outsourced, decision-makers may not even work directly for the targeted organization.
Nevertheless, former employees and contractors can be valuable information sources for networking questions.
Key networking questions to ask
- Who can provide me with valuable information about this organization?
- Who needs to know about my story?
- Which individuals are influential?
- What individuals are influential with the key decision-maker?
- Which individuals are involved in setting up governance policies?
- Which individuals will perceive the most significant value from my product or service right now?
- Who can and will carry my banner to sell my solution internally?
- Who will make the decision?
- How can I gain access to the people who can make a decision?
- How do individuals connect/communicate with each other at the target company?
Attitude/sentiment questions connect to networking questions. Once the influencers have been identified, you must continually assess how they feel about your product or service’s value and whether they favor partnering with your company as a solution provider.
Attitude/sentiment related sales questions are often asked face-to-face:
- What are the key benefits / challenges you see in what we have proposed?
- What is missing from our proposal/recommendation that you believe is required?
- Using the information you have right now, do you feel confident recommending our solution?
- Which solution do you believe will provide the best result for your company?
- Who is your preferred provider? What are the most significant factors influencing your opinion?
- Do you believe the solution we have proposed will provide the outcome you require?
- What are your thoughts about our proposal/demonstration/recommendation?
- Do you know of any reasons that our companies could not conduct business together
- Do you plan to purchase from us?
As the sales cycle progresses, the need to take frequent attitude/sentiment readings from specific individuals becomes more acute. Why? Because as connections escalate to higher levels of influence, greater levels of commitment from all parties are required for your proposal to be converted to a purchase order.
A less than enthusiastic attitude toward your product or service represents a risk condition that must be addressed.
Conclusion for sales questions
Do you know why it is so important to ask the right sales questions? Because it enables quick sales discovery. In sales, the spoils often belong to the company that executes discovery quickly. Why the emphasis on speed? Because rapid discovery leads to shorter decision cycles.
With all other factors constant, faster decision cycles yield a lower cost of sales and higher profits. And because changes occur during B2B sales cycles in competitive pressures, regulations, pricing, fees, and other variables, shorter sales cycles have lower risk than longer cycles.