to Ask or Not to Ask… That is the Question… About Questions
I’m a question-oriented guy. I’m not nosy and I’m not the Magnum PI – type investigator (nor do I resemble, sadly, Tom Selleck in the least!) I wasn’t the kid in the classroom who raised his hand and said, “Oh! I have a question!” after every topic of a lecture. And I wasn’t the child who asked, “Why is the sky blue, Dad? Well, why are clouds white? And how do the clouds stay in the sky?” But I’m a question-oriented guy nonetheless. Some people are naturally wired to ask and inquire, to be inquisitive and to seek to understand. For some, it takes training and inspiration to drive a sense of curiosity, a feeling of WANTING to understand, to gain insight and to be inquisitive.
In the realm of selling and influencing buyers and decisions makers, the ability to understand is paramount to getting a deal closed. The FAB approach – sharing Features, Advantages, Benefits – highlights all things a product or solution does. Most times this approach fails in the realm of complex sales and in most account management roles. At least in those roles, I’ve held or trained this has been the prevailing pattern. Having an understanding of challenges, concerns, needs, and goals is a mandate prior to sharing solutions of any sort. So having the ability to consider the challenges, concerns, needs, and goals of the account must exist in the account manager. And the best way to consider the challenges, concerns, needs, and goals of an account is to learn about the account by being curious and by asking good questions.
Being curious simply means having an internal drive to learn about the organization being called on including the stakeholders, business model, marketplace, competitors and business strategies. Much of this information is readily available online and through a myriad of 3rd party reports and resources. Annual reports, news feeds, web searches, company websites and internal newsletters are all deep sources of articles, updates, and insights. In today’s market with the technology we have so readily available, curiosity should be almost a given. But in many cases account managers take the easy way out and focus on the FAB of their products rather than on the FIT of their products to the problems at hand. They don’t do the work to unearth needs and challenges and instead rely on the product or the contract to gain the interest of the buyer instead of aligning the product or contract to the buyer’s challenges, concerns, needs or goals.
And finally, the capability to ask good questions is a loaded topic and one appropriate for its own blog post. So many selling models purport the need to ask good questions, even defining the types of questions to be asked and in what order. Open-ended, challenger, payoff, consequence, background, closed-ended, situational, etc., etc., etc. – all are known question types across various matrices and selling models with absolutely solid value and utility. I am agnostic when it comes to which selling model an account manager should use and which format of questions they should embrace and deploy. I even tell people when I facilitate – I don’t care what type of question it is you ask, so long as you know the information you are seeking to gain and how the attainment of that information will progress toward solving the account’s problem, presumably with your solution.
The use of questions in selling and influencing is, I believe, an accepted fact. The types of questions and models and constructs one should use will be debated for decades. But the use of questions to drive curiosity at the stakeholder level is so important it cannot be overemphasized. Having an ability to formulate good, engaging questions is a learned skill that takes time and practice. It takes being observed and coached on real sales calls. It takes investment in selling skill workshops with the effort given in all opportunities for practicing – exercises, role plays and case studies. Account managers and representatives who truly want to be outstanding in their companies must learn to agitate using good, effective, impactful questions to uncover problems and concerns that can be solved with company solutions.