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The Power of Open-Ended Questions in Sales & Sales Management

Posted by Tony Cole on Thu, Sep 15, 2022

Conversation is much more pleasant than interrogation.  This is important for an effective coach to remember because after two or three questions, a salesperson is going to feel like they are being attacked.  This is also true for prospects.

Great coaches ask great questions like “Bill, how did that linebacker get past you?”  If the coach tells him, “You’ve got to keep that linebacker from getting past you”, does Bill learn anything? Chances are he already knows he shouldn’t have let this happen.  By asking the right question and reviewing via the post-call debrief (similar to viewing the game film together), Bill will better analyze his own actions and discover what he failed to do. 

Note that the coaching question, “Bill, how did that linebacker get past you?” is an open-ended question.  In sales and sales management, it is best to avoid asking “yes” and “no” questions. They are not effective during the sales process or when working with and coaching salespeople.  Phrase your questions as open-ended. This will help to engage the salesperson, make him/her think before answering and get him/her involved.

Let’s say that you have a sales person who frequently fails to uncover the competition during the sales process.  You could ask him/her, “Did you find out about the competition?” or “When you asked the prospect about those firms being considered, what did he say?”

Can you tell which question is going to get a better answer and provide more insight?  Open-ended questions make coaching sessions more conversational and more engaging.  Open-ended questions will help the salesperson identify the gaps between what they are doing and what they should be doing. Open-ended questions gather more information.  

Let’s parallel this to a conversation with a sales prospect. Your salesperson has secured a first meeting and over the phone, identified a specific issue or pain that is the reason for the meeting. Are they equipped with a meaningful series of open-ended questions that are conversational in nature, so that the prospect does not feel like they are being interrogated?  Here are some of the open-ended questions we recommend in a first meeting sales conversation:

  • What has to happen today so that you feel that this was a great meeting?
  • Tell me more about that (assume you have uncovered some problem or issue).
  • How long has that been going on?
  • What have you done to fix it?
  • When you spoke to your current provider, what did they say? or
  • What has your current vendor done to make this problem go away?
  • What happens if you don’t fix this?
  • What is this problem costing you?
  • Is that a problem?
  • Do you want to fix it?

While there are several Yes/No questions at the end of that series, for the most part, that questioning technique is conversational and open-ended. The salesperson is genuinely interested in the answers to these questions so that they will understand if they can help the prospect.

Now back to the coaching parallel. Once the gaps between expectation on the call and actual execution during the call are uncovered with your salesperson, you need to gain agreement from the sales person that there is a gap before moving to the next step. Sometimes the salesperson will not see this immediately. Upon agreement, identify specific solutions and objectives to improve performance.  The key here is to identify solutions that will help the salesperson learn and grow. Do not just set data or results-based goals. 

An example of a learning objective would be to improve the percentage of contacts to appointments.  An increase in this percentage would indicate improvement in an initial-call skill. Improving the quality of initial calls would be a measurable objective because there would be a corresponding increase in opportunities created.  Be sure to document the identified, agreed-upon objectives and note the specific action items and corresponding necessary behaviors so that you enhance the salesperson’s probability of success.

 

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Topics: open ended sales questions, asking sales questions, asking the right questions

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    Anthony Cole Training Group has been working with financial firms for close to 30 years helping them become more effective in their markets and closing their sales opportunity gap.  ACTG has mastered the art of using science-based data and finely honed coaching strategies to help build effective sales teams.  Don’t miss our weekly sales management blog insights from our team of expert contributors.

     

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