When Questioning Prospects, Set The Stage In Your Favor

By Michael Rega

Publication: American Salesman
Date: Wednesday, April 1 2000

The magic of a Well-developed question is usually reserved for the illusionist of the courtroom, but if you follow these simple staged questions, you’ll quickly enhance your response quality. The information-gathering step should be taken gingerly so you won’t annoy your contact. In your initial conversation, use the soft tactic of probing to discover your client’s buying method. The prospect will say something like…

“A request comes to me in purchasing and I research the product or service and make a recommendation.”

You have just discovered valuable information about the corporate structure of the prospect’s company. Now, the foundation has been built for your follow-up probe, which should be…

“Do you make the recommendation to an individual or a committee?”

In many of today’s selling environments and committees (where group selling is needed) you will find the real prospect. The beginning probing phase focuses on the method of purchasing products, which is similar to yours — rather than the brand of your particular product or service. There is a variety of probing techniques used in different situations in order to gain the information you need to get the prospect to speak with you. Let’s discuss the best techniques and when and where to use them:

Stage One Questions:

These are general questions, which allow you to discover the general nature of your prospect’s company or structure. In many cases, since these are typically non-critical probes, the prospect will gladly answer them and not feel threatened.

The communication rules of self-disclosure let you begin an interaction with non-threatening, easy-to-gain knowledge. The rules of self-disclosure are the scientific reason why so many people discuss inane subjects (i.e., the weather) to relative strangers. Can you imagine a non-conformist responding to your question of whether or not the rain stopped, by answering, “Yes. Are you single, divorced, married … or gay?” The questioning, although clearly fact-finding, is too deep into self-disclosure and certainly puts you in an uneasy conversational situation. The same aversion to self-disclosure will happen if your fact-finding questions are too direct or private. Be certain to ask public knowledge questions. Some good examples are:

  • How many states do you cover?
  • Are you affiliated with other hospitals in the region?
  • How many salespeople do you have?
  • What is your current employee-training program?
  • How many copies are made in a week?

These questions are as non-threatening as, “Is it still raining?” They allow the prospect to warm up to you and move into the speaking mode. There are a host of good salespeople who are terrific talkers; however, there are NO great salespeople that are poor listeners. Some examples of poor opening questions are:

  • Why are your teeth missing?
  • Have you been struggling with weight gain all of your life?
  • How is your twelve-step program coming along?

The key to probing is to persuade your prospect to speak. If you are speaking, you are not learning about your prospect. Delivering a sales pitch and skipping to the next target is the old “show up and throw up” routine. It’s an awful way to sell and perhaps the least fulfilling communication style I can fathom.

Stage Two Questions:

In this level of information gathering, we gain more comfort in building a relationship with the prospect and the rules of self-disclosure again lead this action.

Start the process with some self-disclosure of your own — be careful because many new sales zealots trip up at this point and send their well-intentioned efforts spinning into the abyss. The following stage two questions are all about process:

  • “How do you typically do this?”
  • “How do you supply your facility with that?”
  • “What types of purchases like this have you had in the past?”

These questions need to be open-ended; not the type of questions that can be answered with short, one-word answers. Unsuccessful probes begin with little or no pre-thought and often end in a kind of cockfight between the representative and the prospect. That is :

“How much can I get out of you?”

vs.

“How much information can I keep from you?”

In the general flow of good probing, specifically understanding what you need to know seems rather sophomoric but you will be surprised at how many companies do not teach their salespeople what type of information they need to properly position the product or service. Notice I did not say to sell the product or service — because you are not there yet. You do not even know whether they need you or not, so, how could you be selling? You are, however, fact-finding. Fact-finding is the base of all good selling and negotiating. Begin to use these concepts and soon you will be prepared for success rather than primed for failure.