From an e-mail to the Rock Content sales team on May 7, 2015
In our consultative sales process the information we receive from the potential client, is far more important in shaping our explanation of solutions for their business than any pre-call material we have ready. We need to get people talking. In order to do that effectively you’ll need to master the following 3 key types of sales questions.
Closed questions are constructed to induce ‘’yes’’ or ‘’no’’ answers. They commonly begin with ‘’If,’’ ‘’Do,’’ ‘’Can,’’ ‘’Will,’’ ‘’Are,’’ ‘’Did,” ‘’Have.’’ Of the 3 key types of sales questions, the closed question is both your best friend and worst enemy. It does not allow for half-measures, elaboration or insight which can be either valuable or misleading depending on the objective of the question.
The closed question is great for creating a checkpoint or confirming definitive information. ‘’Have you confirmed with your director that the 100k investment we discussed is in this year’s budget?’’ This is a clear yes or no question, helping you to check the investment box in the buying process or know if this commitment has still not been nailed down yet. Closed questions are also great for setting up a vein of conversation. ‘’Are you familiar with how business like yours are using content marketing to grow?’’ A ‘’yes,’’ ‘’no’’ or even an ‘’I think so,’’ will allow you to know where to go next. A good closed question can be a great first salvo in a series of follow on questions to open up the ‘’value of content’’ conversation.
Be careful though, as the closed question is also the most misused of all sales questions. Because closed questions are not built for elaboration, they can produce fool’s gold answers from our prospective clients that hold little value or commitment. The classic example of this, ‘’Does that make sense?’’ You will at some point have to provide new information to the prospective client, eith on the value of content marketing in general or the specifics of our services. A common check-in question used by inexperienced around the world after a chunk of new information is shared is, ‘’Does that make sense?’’ The problem here is that the ‘’Yes’’ you invariably get is worthless. Nobody very says, ‘’No I didn’t get that part please explain in greater detail how it will help.’’ They say ‘’yes’’ and we don’t really know for sure if they did absorb the message at or with the value and impact we intended. If this is a decision by committee and this person needs to help explain things to someone else, we need to hear how they will do it. The closed question alone won’t get us what we need here. Used closed questions, but use them with caution.
If you took journalism 101, you’d probably been taught the 6 core elements of a complete news story: who, what, where, why, how and to what extent. These are also the 6 common starters to open sales questions. Open questions are the fill-in-the-blanks questions in discovery. They start with some information provided by the sales consultant and require/allow the prospective client to provide the rest. ‘’Who else is involved in making marketing decisions?’’ ‘’How much are you investing in AdWords today?’’ ‘’What KPIs do you currently use to measure success?’’ We ask the questions that request specific information in the answer to help enrich our understanding of the client’s situation and provide more depth to our level of knowledge.
Open questions too, have a dark side. Less experienced consultants can sometimes be seduced into thinking the limited information learned from 1 or 2 open questions is the full extent of insight and depth on a topic. Example: AdWords. ‘’Do you invest in AdWords?’’ ‘’Yes.’’ ‘’How much is your monthly spend?’’ ‘’3k.’’ A junior consultant will stop here, believing that because he went 1 level deeper, from closed question to open, the AdWords topic has been covered with sufficient detail. What about all the juicy stuff regarding how they got to the 3k AdWords spend, why not more or less than 3k, why AdWords at all, who manages the campaigns and how, who made the decision to invest in AdWords, when and for what purpose? Don’t let the single open question lead you to believe you have unearthed all the gold.
Yielding the most comprehensive answers form clients of all 3 types of sales questions are the special breed know as investigative questions. Commonly starting with phrases like ‘’tell me,’’ ‘’explain to me,’’ ‘’help me understand;’’ investigative questions are grammatically not questions at all, but rather commands. The very structure of these questions demands a more-detailed, well-rounded answer. ‘’Tell me how you are marketing the business today.’’ ‘’Explain to me your understanding of content marketing.’’ These statements cannot reasonably be replied to with a ‘’yes’’ or ‘’no’’ as they require the answerer to provide the real substance. They offer little more than the topic of conversation and allow the potential client to take the answer in any direction she sees fit.
Unlike closed or open sales questions, the risk with investigative questions is not in the limits of the information provided in their answers but rather in the breadth. Allowing the prospective client the freedom to take the conversation wherever she pleases can open a treasure trove of valuable insights however it also hands over more control of the conversation than opened or closed questions do. Be aware of this. Some people naturally ramble or lack pointed focus and their conversations can lead off into tangents. At times the person you hope to consult can consume valuable time with non-valuable information that can cloud the conversation and take her focus (and yours) off the priority of solving an urgent problem or achieving a real goals.
None of the 3 types of sales questions are superior over the others. They all have their value and place within our consultative sales process. They are all weapons to help you learn more about the people whose businesses we aim to help. But be advised. Like any weapon, if not used responsibly sales questions can cause more harm than good.