Here's how to use questions to elicit a valuable response from the customer
I understand the importance of using questions in the sales process. However,
I'm not sure about how to use them. Sometimes my questioning techniques work quite well and other times they seem to backfire on me. Do you have any suggestions?
On a surface level, utilizing questions seems straightforward. If you need to know something, you ask a question. It's as simple as that. However, each type of question used properly in the sales process is designed to produce different results. Some are designed to extract information, others are designed to prompt the customer to consider outcomes or consequences, and so forth. To simply ask a question to ask a question doesn't necessarily accomplish anything other than possibly irritating the customer.
Those that use questioning skills successfully make the process look easy. They seem to weave in the appropriate question at the exact time. Because questioning skills are techniques, they need to be integrated smoothly into the conversation or you risk sounding canned. To accomplish the fluidity of experts takes practice. You don't need to know a lot of different questioning skills. Use the ones that work best for you.
Questioning skills are like the tools of a carpenter; they are only valuable when used at the right time. Following are some guidelines for integrating questions appropriately in customer interactions. Develop one or two of each and practice utilizing these until they become natural.
Open-ended questions - If you master no other questioning skill, make sure you master these. Open-ended questions are terrific because they encourage the customer to respond freely. Use these at the start of your presentation to gauge the presentation according to the customer's needs and interests. They typically start with who, what, when, where, which and how. For instance you may ask, "How do you see your business changing in the next year?" or, "What expectations do you have for the program?" They may also be used to move beyond common stalls to the sale. If the customer says, "Give me a call in a month", you would use an open-ended question to clarify true intent be asking something like, "What do you see changing in a month from now?"
Tie-down questions - These are used to get a customer to move with you. It is said that customers will not do business with you unless they've said yes at least twice. Tie-downs are simply statements that end or begin with a question such as, "Isn't it?" "Wouldn't it?", etc. Use no more than two of these in a row, or they start to sound like a technique. Craft your questions so they are easy to respond to without putting the customer on the spot. Examples of effective tie-down questions may be, "It's tough to keep up with all the tax changes affecting small businesses, don't you think?" or, "Wouldn't it be great if you could actually buy time?" Asking tie downs can create natural segues for you to position your solution once the customer says yes.
Alternate of choice questions - These are used to give customers options. This is particularly useful when you're working with a customer who doesn't know what he or she needs. If you give too many options, they may get confused. Limit the choices to two or three at a time. Make sure that each choice is viable for the customer. Examples could include, "Do you see yourself implementing a new process in the A or B plant?" or "Will you be using your cell phone when you are out of town or strictly in state?"
Involvement questions - As customers get close to a buying decision, they think about specifics. By asking specifics in advance of a decision, it helps you gauge where the customer is mentally in the sales process. During the presentation, you would ask a customer something they would have to decide after the sale. Involvement questions usually begin with, "If you decide to ... or, "When you decide to ...." The way the customer responds will give you information about how close they are to a decision. For example, "When you decide to install the new machinery, who will you want trained on the equipment?" If they respond like this, "I have no idea", you have a long way to go. If, on the other hand they say, "I was thinking of Jim and Mary. Can you accommodate them?", close the sale.
Reverse questions - These are used to close the sale. When opportunities to use the reverse are recognized, they are highly effective. You reverse by simply answering a question with a question. If the customer says, "Can you start on this project next week?", you say, "When next week do you want to start?" The rule of thumb is to reverse specific questions and answer general questions.
There are numerous other types of questions you could learn. You don't need to know dozens of different types of questions. Concentrate on what you want the question to do for you and then use them until they feel natural.
Marcia Gauger is president of Impact Sales, a training and performance-improvement company with offices in Mukwonago and in Arkansas. Small Business Times readers can contact her in Mukwonago at 262-642-9610, or via fax at 501-964-0055. Her column appears in every other issue of SBT.
April 27, 2001 Small Business Times