How to Ask the Best Discovery Questions for Sales

BY Tim Londergan
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Why is it that kids ask the best questions? Generally, they’re not about complex issues. And typically, their questions probe with an equal measure of curiosity and passion. Also, youngsters have no fear of offending others. Their innocence and persistence allow them privileges that adults have surrendered as to not appear rude or intrusive. However, when you are asking discovery questions for sales, your goal is to uncover truths that can assist your efforts to help the prospect. Unfortunately, asking sensitive questions make us uncomfortable and hinder our ability to learn.

Ask discovery questions for sales to unlock learning

People often overestimate the costs of asking and are too reluctant to ask sensitive questions.” This quote by Einav Hart, assistant professor of management at George Mason University, extends from her research in organizational behavior. The statement appears in an article entitled “Don’t be afraid to ask ‘sensitive’ questions,” by Benjamin Kessler. Hart suggests that questioners often anticipate that they will leave a bad impression if they ask sensitive questions. However, research has shown that it made little difference to the person being asked. One caveat is that, although “people are not always put off by sensitive questions, it does not guarantee they will answer truthfully.” So, when we ask discovery questions for sales, how can we get honest responses instead of what the prospect thinks we want to hear?

Avoid ‘leading’ questions that signal your intent

All too often, discovery questions for sales seem to imply what the ‘right’ answer is. Unfortunately, these leading questions are too suggestive to embolden complete honesty and therefore you learn nothing new. Hart suggests asking more neutral, open-​ended questions that signal all answers are acceptable. Her suggested phrasing is something like: “What kind of pain, if any, are you feeling today?” Furthermore, the professor recommends combining sensitive topics with less delicate matters. In contrast to the amplified fear of asking deeper questions, sellers can actually strengthen their professional relationships and build rapport, trust and credibility by inquiring the right way.

Questioning is a skill that can be learned

Making conversations more productive should be every seller’s goal. Consider the skilled litigator, journalist or doctor who are taught how to ask questions as part of their training. For some, questioning comes from their natural inquisitiveness, emotional intelligence, and their ability to read people. Others, however, just don’t understand how beneficial discovery questions for sales can be. A Harvard Business Review post by Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John entitled “The Surprising Power of Questions” cites research, discussions and methods of conversations, both competitive and cooperative, to explain their reasoning. A valuable takeaway emphasizes a breakdown of what factors influence high-​quality questioning:

  • Type
  • Tone
  • Sequence
  • Framing

A follow-​up question is the type that reveals additional information. The tone of an off-​the-​record, casual question can inspire further details. Regarding sequence, the research shows that “people are more willing to reveal sensitive information when questions are asked in a decreasing order of intrusiveness.” Therefore, asking the most intrusive question at the top allows respondents to be more forthcoming to the less sensitive queries that follow. Granted, it’s a delicate balance to get the first question right. Finally, framing considers the broad scope of the exchange with a focus on your desired outcome.

Ending sentences with a question mark instead of a period is far more revealing

Questions and answers have a power that exceeds all matters of performance. Fearless and skillfully planned discovery questions for sales can release important facts, reveal hidden agendas and strengthen bonds between you and your prospect.

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