You’re probably very familiar with the difference between open and closed questions, and how and where they can be most effectively used in the sales process. At the most basic level, closed questions allow the person asking the question to retain control of the conversation, whilst open questions hand control of the conversation to the person answering the question.
Asking an inappropriate type of question at an inappropriate time can derail the flow of the sales conversation, sometimes without hope of recovery. But there’s another particularly useful class of question that offers the respondent choices, whilst still enabling the questioner to keep control of the conversation…
I’m going to label these devices “restricted-option questions”, and they can be incredibly powerful if used appropriately and sparingly. Let me explain what I mean:
A restricted-option question presents the respondent with choices whilst allowing the questioner to retain some control over the likely answers.
For example, rather than asking a new prospect the spectacularly open question “what keeps you up at night” - a question that many respondents would regard as crude, impertinent and totally devoid of imagination, and which does nothing to showcase your expertise, how much better might the sales person do if they asked something more intelligent?
I want to showcase a couple of sub-categories of restricted-option question. The first example exemplifies the shared experience type of restricted-option question:
Shared experience restricted-option questions
Here’s an example of a shared-experience sales question: “When I talk to people in similar roles in similar organisations, the three most common issues I keep hearing from them are [issue 1, issue 2 and issue 3]. I was wondering how they might be affecting your own organisation? Or maybe you’re currently focused on other priorities?”
Let’s break this down:
- By referring to similar roles in similar organisations, the questioner is implying expertise
- The questioner is concentrating on identifying business issues rather than promoting their solutions - that can come later
- The issues are deliberately chosen because the questioner knows in advance that if any of them are acknowledged, they have a well-proven solution that they can lead the discussion towards
- The questioner leaves the possibility open that the prospect may have something else more important on their mind than the handful of issues that have been suggested
This (or a variation of it) is a remarkably powerful and effective questioning technique allowing an open yet directed conversation. Sales people that have tried it usually vow to never go back to the “what keeps you up at night” nonsense.
Oh, and by the way, once the respondent identifies an issue, the sales person should go to the back of the class if their instinct is jump in straight away and say “we can solve that” (or something similar).
This is their chance to dig into the consequences of the issue, the impact on the organisation, and how they might have already tried to address it. There will be plenty of time to propose their solution once all that important foundational enquiry has been completed.
Range based restricted-option questions
The other type of restricted-option question I want to share with you is the range based question and its equally important follow up question. Let’s assume that the sales person has identified an issue that is important to their prospect. Here’s how they can develop the conversation yet remain in control:
“If you were to rate your current ability to address the issue on a 1-10 scale, where 10 = perfect, what sort of score would you give yourself?”, followed by the critical follow-up question: “So what would have to change for you to give it a 10”.
Let’s disassemble this question-pair in the same way we did the previous example:
- We’ve focused on an issue that they have already acknowledged, so they are unlikely to give it a “10”
- By the way, even if your prospects claim to be happy, there’s almost always something more they would like to do, and this question-pair can flush this out
- The wording of the (open) follow-up question is quite deliberate - not “what would it take”, but “what would have to change” - this focuses their response on what they need to do, not what they would like to do.
So there you have it - just a couple of examples of restricted-option sales questions. There are many other variations on the basic idea. Hopefully you’ll want to try some of them out - and that you’ll find them effective.
Let me know what you think, and please share some of your examples.
By the way, an organisation-wide ability to ask great questions is just one of the characteristics of top-performing B2B sales and marketing organisations. We’ve captured a number of others in our completely-revised best practices self-assessment. Why not download your copy today?