Every effective sales training course teaches sales professionals to ask open-ended questions.  These are the questions that start with who, what, why, when, how, etc.  Why are open ended questions so universally taught? Because:

  • They solicit great information
  • Get the person talking
  • Allow you and them to find out if there is an opportunity
  • Can show your expertise, IF you ask the right questions

robot interrogationAll that sounds great, doesn’t it?  They really ARE effective.  But not 100% of the time.  Sometimes they can make a needs analysis seem like an interrogation.  Even though they are open they can be leading, forced, narrow, product focused and irrelevant.  Sales pros can come off like a robot reciting their list of questions so they can get to pitching their product!

When we use the 3 ‘I’ approach, our open-ended questions include:

  1. Intent
  2. Intelligence
  3. Interest

Intent.  I’ve seen sales pros launch right into a list of questions that might seem irrelevant to the prospect.  The prospect thinks ‘What’s this have to do with anything?” Instead, we need to explain the intent of the line of questions so the prospect can put it in perspective and answer thoughtfully.

An example: Yesterday I received a call for someone who had something to offer.  They immediately asked me “So, what are you working on?”  My response?  “Wow, that’s broad, in what context?” They responded, “Whatever context you choose.”  Well, I was confused.  I knew what this person was selling and thought, should I answer my question based on that narrow interest or is he really trying to find out more?

So, I turned it back to him and said, ‘What are you working on?”  And then he responded. After 15 minutes I knew the flavor of his focus and we continued.

But why should I have had to work that hard?  If I knew where the discussion was going we could have both saved time.

To share intent can sound like this.  “We are going to talk about your human resource needs. What we have learned is that understanding  how this fits into the overall company’s goals and objectives helps us narrow down the approach and we will be able to give you a more accurate picture of how we might help.  The first questions are focused on that broader picture. Then we’ll get more specific.”  Then we go into our list of questions.

Intelligence.  Your questions reveal a LOT about you. Here’s how to raise your ‘perceived’ intelligence level:

  • Explain the intent  of your line of questions and ask questions that broaden the dialogue to a bigger more strategic discussion.
  • Focus on the solution or value desired versus just the product.
  • Wait to LISTEN once you have asked  a question. When you ask more intelligent questions, the person may need to think before responding (this is usually a good thing).  How long? According to research, they might need 15-25 seconds to think and respond.  That’s a long time to wait, but it can payoff.

Interest.  The questions should be ‘of interest’ to the person. How?  Make the questions relevant to the situation and person. When it’s about THEM, it’s interesting TO them. Every aspect of the sales process should be wiift focused – What’s in it for THEM? – and this includes your questions!

There you have the 3 necessary “I”s for making your needs analysis informative and not an interrogation.

Of course I have learned many of these things the hard way.  With confused looks from prospects as I took a direction that surprised them. What have you learned about open ended questions?