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When we’re talking to potential customers, we bring value to our prospects and clients through the questions we ask — but only if they’re good questions.

In the early stages of the discussion, we really need to encourage the prospect to open up and tell us about what’s going on in their world. And the way we do this is by asking questions… lots of questions… but questions that very much “open”.

Open questions prompt a conversation because they can’t be answered with one-word answers. An example might be ‘Where do you want to be in five years?’ The answer to this questions varies from person to person, and can only be answered with a unique perspective that usually prompts a longer conversation.

You might be familiar with the concept of open and closed questions, but in case you’re not here’s the difference.

Open questions prompt the beginning of a longer conversation by asking questions starting with “why,” “how,” and “what if?”

Closed questions can be answered with single-word answers, such as “yes” or “no.”

They both have their place in sales conversations. If you’re only looking for one-word or quantitative answers, like the number of employees a prospect has, or their company’s annual revenue, asking a closed question is an appropriate approach.

But when it comes to opening up your initial discovery calls with prospects or new customers, open questions are the way to go.

How to Ask Open Questions

If at the end of the meeting, I ask a prospect or client, “Did you find this meeting helpful?” that’s a closed question since they can only answer “yes” or “no.” And while it’s good to know that they found the meeting helpful, unless they elaborate on their answer, you don’t know in what ways they experienced value. Maybe they’re just being polite.

On the other hand, I could ask, “We’ve been through a bit of a process to get to this point. Can you tell me the value you feel you’ve received by going through this entire process?”

Now what happens? Your prospect or client can only talk about their perception of the process, which helps you to get even clearer on your value. In addition, asking your prospects and clients about value actually helps them reinforce it in their own minds. The end result is you become more preferable and earn the right to ask for referrals.

It’s worth paying attention to the questions you are asking your prospects, clients, and everyone else you encounter. Did you just ask a closed question when an open question would have drawn out more information for both parties? Where appropriate, start to turn some of your closed questions into open questions.

If you ask a closed question, follow it up with an open one. Here’s a quick little trick I use that might help. If you find yourself asking a closed question, you can always open it up at the end. For example, if you start by asking “Did you find value in this process?” you can follow it up with, “If so, please tell me in what ways.”

Be careful to use open questions to start a conversation, but not to run through a script.
Remember that open questions are designed to start a conversation with people. You shouldn’t be surprised or thrown off if the answers to an open question lead to unusual directions, and you should have a plan in place for if that happens, because it means your open questions were successful.

Make sure you’re also actively listening to the answers to help you build rapport with prospects and become one of their trusted advisers.

Here are some open, high-value questions you can ask your prospects:

1. What are the top priorities of your business at the moment?

This is a great alternative to the question, “What’s your main business goal?” Asking your contact to share their business priorities invites them to provide a complete overview of their current state of business. That information can give you valuable insight into how you can position your product or service to better resonate with them.

2. What are some of the best decisions you’ve made related to X?

Instead of asking, “What did you focus on last year?” ask them to share some of their recent wins. This tells you what your prospect is currently celebrating, and by understanding what has recently gone well for them, you can learn how to present your product as their next good decision.

3. How are you feeling about your current situation related to X?

If you don’t want to receive a one-word answer such as “good” or “fine”, stay away from questions such as “How are you doing?” Asking them to describe their current situation invites the prospect to share their story and perspective with you, and creates a safe space to begin building trust.

4. If we were meeting five years from today, what needs to happen for you to feel good about your business situation related to X?

Don’t put your prospect on the spot by asking an awkward question like “What’s your five-year plan?” While most businesses do have insight into what they want to accomplish in the future, asking for their future plans can lead to a deer in the headlights response. By asking them how you can help them reach their best case scenario, this opens the door to thoughtful conversation about their future plans in a low-pressure way.

5. What opportunities do you see on your horizon?

Asking your prospect what opportunities they would like to capitalise on is another low-pressure way to enquire about their future plans. This also gives you valuable information you can use to leverage your product as the key to helping them realise their opportunities.

6. What challenges do you see in making those opportunities happen?

Instead of asking what roadblocks they are facing, keep the conversation focused on their opportunities. This open-ended question gets the prospect thinking about how you can work together to remove the barriers to their goals.

7. How will you be measuring our success related to those outcomes?

This question is an inviting way to ask your prospect what their KPIs are. If you were to simply ask, “What are your KPIs?” they could provide a one-word answer such as “sales” which doesn’t give you much insight. By asking how they plan to measure success, the prospect has the opportunity to go in-depth explaining to you how they will know when they’ve reached their goals.

8. What’s the biggest risk of you not making progress on this situation?

If you were to ask a prospect, “What if you don’t hit your goals?” you could put them in the defensive. Instead, try asking what their risks are of not making progress. Not only is this question less direct, it gives you the chance to work together and strategise on potential risk management practices.

9. Who needs to be involved in making the final purchasing decision?

Finding the right decision maker is critical to making a sale. As you navigate the sales process, make sure you’re working with the right contact. Let’s be honest, there’s nothing worse than putting in the groundwork to get the deal, only to find out your prospect doesn’t have purchasing authority and can’t sign on the dotted line. Confirming who needs buy-in as a productive open-ended question.

10. What is the motivation behind this project?

This question helps you understand your prospect’s decision making process. By learning what your prospect is motivated by, you will get clear on what results they are seeking from your product. This can help you set expectations, and speak to the features that matter most to your buyer. Additionally, by asking your prospect what factors are motivating their buying decisions, you give them a chance to share their values, which is important for building trust.

Want to learn more about sales qualification? Take a look at our EPIC Selling programme, or simply get in touch for an exploratory chat.

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