The Art of Asking Questions

Mastering the Art of Asking Questions is essential if you want to succeed.  It’s not simply a matter of getting in the habit of utilizing questions in your interactions with people.  It’s really about learning how to ask the right questions at the right time.

Whether you’re having sales conversations, coaching conversations, or working to develop others, learning how to ask good questions can be the difference between success and failure.  What does asking the right questions at the right time mean?  It means asking questions in such a way as to better understand the other person, their needs, and their motivations.

Since the questions asked and the flow of an effective conversation varies from person to person and from situation to situation, the best way to illustrate the Art of Asking Questions is by way of example.

Here is a sample sales conversation, conducted by someone not skilled at the Art of Asking Questions:

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Hi Bob, I’m calling about the great widgets my company sells.  Do you have a few minutes to speak?

“Sure.”

Great!  Are you familiar with our brand?

“No, not really.”

We offer widgets that solve a number of problems and have some great features.  The new V210 – our mid-grade model – consumes 20% less energy than our competition and is 10% smaller.  It comes in three different colors – red, black and white.  Can I schedule a time with you to come by and show it to you?

“What’s the price?”

It normally sells for $199, but I can offer it to you at a 25% discount – only $149.

“Do you have something you can send me?”

Sure… what address should I send it to?

“123 Main St.”

Great!  I’ll give you a follow-up call in about a week.  OK?

“Yes, that would be fine.”

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If you’ve been in sales, you already know the outcome of that conversation.  The likelihood of closing a sale is slim and the salesperson will no doubt continue to try to reach the prospect again until they get discouraged and give up.

The next example is the same conversation conducted by someone who is better skilled at the Art of Asking Questions, but is not quite there yet:

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Hi Bob, my company helps companies like yours solve their widget problems.  Do you have a few minutes to talk?

“Sure.”

Do you currently use widgets in your business?

“Yes, we do.”

Have you been pleased with the ones you have?

“Well, for the most part we are, but nothing’s perfect.”

The newer design of widgets have a number of improvements over older models.  Would you like to hear more about some of the improvements?

“Sure.”

Well, feature 1… , feature 2…, feature 3…  We have a number of different models available.  Do you have a budget in mind?

“Well, we haven’t been actively looking up until now.

Can you send me some information?”

I’d rather come by and show you first-hand so you can really see what I’m talking about.  Which would be better for you, Tuesday morning or Wednesday afternoon?

“How about Tuesday morning.”

Great!  I’ll see you Tuesday morning then!

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While it is possible that this salesperson may make a sale, it’s far from a sure thing.  Even though the prospect set the appointment, the salesperson really doesn’t know anything about the prospect or the prospect’s motivations.

The conversation would unfold very differently if the salesperson was skilled in the Art of Asking Questions:

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Hi Bob, my name is Paul and I help companies like yours solve any widget problems they have.  Do you have a few minutes to talk?

“Sure.”

Do you currently use widgets in your business?

“Yes, we do.”

How often do you use your widgets?

“Pretty much every day.”

To what extent?  How much?

“About 3-4 hours every day.”

It sounds like you rely on them pretty heavily.

“Yes, absolutely.”

What aspects of your widgets work best for you?

“Well, for one thing they’ve been really reliable.  We’ve had them for over 4 years.  Also, we need the automated feed feature and that’s been a life-saver.  And the supplies are easy to find and affordable.”

Sounds like they’ve served you well.  Have you had any problems with them?

“Well, the only problem we’ve had is that they sometimes misfeed.”

When you say they sometimes misfeed, specifically how often does that happen?

“Only once or twice a day.”

Are there any features or functions you wish they had?

“It would be nice if they had a bigger bin so we didn’t have to re-stock them so often.”

Anything else?  Would it help if they could automatically stack the finished product?

“Can they do that?”

Ours can.  I think it would make sense for us to get together.  I can show you a widget I have that has a 99% reliability record, high-speed automatic feeding without jamming, a large bin, and automated stacking.  Do you have about 25 minutes on Tuesday morning or would something like Wednesday afternoon work better for you?

“Let’s do next Tuesday morning.”

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As you can see, the last sales conversation unfolded very differently than the prior two.  In the last conversation, the salesperson asked good questions – questions which uncovered what mattered to the other person, along with some motivations for making a change.  (We didn’t have time in this article to uncover all the motivations.)

Having a conversation like this helps the prospect to clarify what features he needed and highlighted problems and desires.  Both parties knew exactly why they were getting together and the likelihood of closing a sale was extremely high.

When you master the Art of Asking Questions, you learn to ask questions which uncover motivations and you’ll do a better job of selling, coaching, and developing others.

© 2011 – 2015, Michael Beck. All rights reserved.

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