Ask the Right Sales Questions

In the “Calculating What Your Product or Service is Worth” article, we talk about how important it is to get a keen understanding of what your prospect, and their internal buying team, really thinks that your product or service is worth.

How do you actually get this understanding?
By asking the right questions in an open and honest format.

It is your duty to get to the heart of your client’s needs and wants, and knowing the difference between needs and wants. This article assumes that you’ve read and followed the article titled “Getting the Initial Sales Appointment” in that these sets of questions take place either during or after your initial meeting – not during a cold call.

Uncovering facts in the sales process

There are lots of books and papers out there offering suggestions for discovery questions. “Ask open ended questions”, “You need to ask questions to qualify your prospects”, and “Don’t ask questions unless you know the answer” were the top few results on a recent Google search. I thought I was actually on to something with number four when it started out saying “good sales questions is the single most powerful sales tool”, sounds good, let’s see what else they say; “A good question from your salespeople helps focus and shape the direction in which your customer’s mind works.”

If I wasn’t sure that I had a duty to write this series of article’s before I got to this point, I’m certainly sure now.

There isn’t much of anything out there giving you solid, concrete advice and examples of what questions to ask and when to ask them.

Questions and When to Ask Them

I think the best way to give truly meaningful content here is to list sample questions for the various phases of the sales process and then provide detailed examples in the accompanying article and future posts. I originally wrote this section with the format of a sample question followed by my philosophy for asking that question, and I was up over twenty pages of great information that no one would ever read. So I trimmed my philosophies down to a few words in brackets after some of the questions.

It’s easy to fill page after page with questions for each of the below timing points. In fact, it’s a piece of cake. What’s far more difficult, but immensely more useful, is to boil all those questions down into a few in each category that you can actually remember and use in practice.

Questions to ask yourself

  • Why would they ever accept a call from me? [figure out your in]
  • Do I truly feel that my solution is the best choice for them? [if not, recommend a better choice]
  • Am I moving forward with high intent and my customer’s best interest at heart, or am I succumbing to quarterly numbers pressure?

Questions to ask your prospect before your first meeting

  • What are the key topics that I could hit on to make certain that this is a beneficial meeting for you?
  • Will there be anyone else in the meeting? [depending on the complexity of your sale, you could push here to have all the necessary people in the first meeting, I like to have them in the second meeting so I have more background information, see below]
  • I typically just sit and have an open conversation, but I can prepare a formal presentation if you would prefer that?
  • What could happen at this meeting that would make you think “wow that was a fantastic meeting?” [this question is a little hokey, but it could give you some real insight – I don’t use it all the time]

Taking your prospect’s temperature questions

All you need to do is have a conversation with your customer and discover together the best solution for them going forward. If it’s you, fantastic. If it’s not, that’s ok too; you’ll be at the top of the list the next time a problem comes down the pike.

  • Before we get too buried in detail, do you mind if I ask about your history with the company? [you’re looking to sure up buying power here and political power]
  • Rather than going into our services and solutions, I’d love to start off with you actually explaining the current situation if that’s ok? [here they will tell you something like, “well, we make this part with 14 other parts and the welding costs are out of control” – make sure you know the real underlying issues before leaving this bullet, use the general probing questions below]
  • Can you please explain your current solution to this issue?
  • And what concerns do you have with the current way business is done?
  • If you could change one thing about the current solution what would it be? [this and the two previous questions will uncover who your entrenched competition is and how you can position yourself to be better]
  • Are you looking at any other solutions other than us? May I ask what type of solution those are?
  • Do you have a feel for the real life cycle costs of {current solution}? [Here is where you start to get a financial understanding of your competition and where you need to be in order to compete]
  • As we go along here today, I’ll be taking notes to prepare a life cycle cost analysis of what we can provide. Is that something you could go over with me, assuming we reach a decision that this makes sense to move forward? [wow, we now have their pressing problem, how they currently solve it, where their current solution fails, and an idea on how to be cost competitive – it’s almost like insider information, and you weren’t sneaky or slimy about getting it]

Moving forward questions

At this point in the game you have a pretty good feeling that your solution is the best choice for your prospect and you need to understand how their company works so you don’t waste your precious time and energy on non-productive tasks.

  • Well Ms. Prospect, from my side, it looks like we might have a workable and economical solution for you, would you agree with that?
    • [if yes] Great, then do you mind if we talk a bit about your business process and how we would fit in?
    • [if no] Ok, can you please help me understand where you think our solution is lacking?
  • How soon would you be looking to implement a change such as what we’re suggesting?
  • OK, could you give me a sense of what type of milestones you’d like to reach during the implementation phase? [this gives you insight into how to break up your eventual quotation to them]
  • Would you consider this a priority issue and do you think others in the evaluation/buying process would evaluate it likewise? [need to know who all the players are]
    • OK, who are all the others that would be in on this decision? [push them here, did they think of legal, accounting, maintenance, etc.]
    • Could you help me sketch out an organization chart so that I can best understand what this process will entail?
    • Who do you think we should bring in from this list for the next detailed meeting?
  • Could you walk me through a typical evaluation and procurement cycle for something like this? [make sure that the names mentioned here coincide with the names gathered from the previous questions]
  • What do you see as your greatest risk and benefit with solving your current problem?
  • And what do you see as your company’s greatest risk and benefit?

General probing questions

These questions can and should be used during all phases of questioning to help you dig deeper and gain a better understanding of your customer’s needs. If asked in a genuine and sincere manner, they will not be offensive or pushy.

  • I think that this is a key issue here, can you help me understand this a little better?
  • What exactly do you mean by that?
  • Do you mind if I give you my understanding of {that issue} to make sure that we’re on the same page?
  • As you may know Mr. Prospect, I’m an engineer by training, one of our lean mantras is to ask five ‘why’ questions when we are dealing with a key issue. I feel that X is a key issue here today and would like to ask a few why questions about it. [literally just ask why, why, why 5 times to get to a root cause]
  • Can you give me an example of that?
    • I see, would it be possible to have another example?

Questions to ask on a continuous basis

These are questions that you need to keep track of at all times and double check answers from various people with each other to make sure that you’re getting the whole story. People won’t normally lie to you (well buyers might), but more often than not, some folks just don’t know exactly how things work in their own company so you have to put the puzzle together for them.

  • Would you agree that we’re at step X in your evaluation and procurement process?
  • Has anything changed in the buying process that I should know about?
  • Anything I should have asked, but haven’t?

Account maintenance questions
As I like to preach, don’t take this section for granted – stay in touch with your current customers. They’re your best prospects for future business.

  • Was everything delivered/installed/reported to your satisfaction? [right after delivered]
  • How is everything working out? [after installation or enough time has elapsed to implement your recommendations]
  • Is there anything that you wish we would have done differently?
  • We’re putting together case studies to showcase some of our projects. Would you be interested in participating in a case study with us?
  • Do you think this solution could transfer across into your other divisions? [start churning new business only after your initial solution is deemed successful]
  • Are there any other areas in your business that you could see our technology being valuable? [keep churning]

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#1 Sales questions mistakes | Engineers Can Sell on 03.21.08 at 2:04 am

[…] “Ask the right sales questions“, we talked about the plethora of advice on the Internet for asking sales questions. Below […]

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[…] For this example, let’s use an engineer salesman pitching a new stronger and lighter material than steel and he is focusing on landing a major aerospace account to kick the business off. The sections follow the list of questions from the post “Ask the right sales questions“. […]

#3 queena deschene on 12.02.08 at 4:46 pm

Super clear description of the specific questions a salesperson should be asking, with direct insight into the logic of the process.

#4 Sales Engineer on 04.22.09 at 2:09 pm

I like the question, ‘Before we get too buried in detail, do you mind if I ask about your history with the company? ‘

This should open up several avenues of investigation and let you spot ‘hot buttons’ which you can press later in your presentation.

#5 Eric on 04.23.09 at 10:41 am

@SalesEngineer – thanks for the note. You picked out a great sales question. Often the sales questions that don’t seem to have much to do with closing the sale can provide the most information that can be leveraged later in the sales cycle.

#6 Rich on 01.12.10 at 2:21 pm

This is a great article there are many things I can extract to put into use. Thanks for your time spent on this.

#7 Sam Michael on 08.24.17 at 5:45 am

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