Stop Preparing So Much: Why Your Next Question Matters More

A large part of any sales training program — no matter the methodology or approach — is learning a specific set of questions sellers use to:

  • Engage customers in a conversation
  • Identify customers’ needs
  • Elicit a specific response
  • Demonstrate value
  • Move the conversation forward

And new sellers, in particular, spend countless hours learning, rehearsing, and ultimately asking those questions, seeking to sharpen their skills with each round of customer conversations.

Even more important is finding the right questions to begin with — as not all customer questions are created equal. The right questions can easily demonstrate a deep understanding of the customer’s business, a genuine willingness to help, and a legitimate ability to deliver value. The wrong questions, however, can immediately expose a rep’s inexperience, poor preparation, and inability to help.

A recent conversation with a very frustrated head of sales reinforced for me something that’s often completely overlooked in all of this effort to find and learn the “right” questions: At the end of the day, no matter what question you ask, you must listen to the answer.

While we might debate the “right” list of questions, you might argue even the best question isn’t half as important as whatever question you ask next. Your next question tells the customer almost everything they need to know about you, your preparation, and your willingness and ability to help. It’s no surprise then that CEB, now Gartner research found “two-way communication” to be one of the six distinct behaviors that distinguish star performers from everyone else.

I’ve watched this scenario play out countless times across my career working with sales professionals. I’ve even fallen into the trap of asking the wrong next question — it’s easy to do.

The Wrong Next Question

So, what is the wrong next question? It’s almost guaranteed to be whatever the next question is on your list of pre-prepared questions. How is that possible? It’s simple.

A seller — even a well-prepared seller — typically enters a sales conversation with a list of questions they need to ask. Maybe they’ve learned them in training, or perhaps they’re the result of manager coachingor determined by fields in a CRM system. It doesn’t actually matter why the seller has prepared these questions. What matters is they’ve come into the conversation with the primary goal of getting answers to those specific questions.

What happens with this kind of question-based mindset is sellers forget about everything else and focus almost exclusively on the actual act of asking whatever’s next on their list of questions. The problem? Sellers forget to actually listen to their prospect’s answers.

There’s always the perfunctory reply of, “Uh huh. Yeah, I understand.” But it’s almost immediately followed by a complete non sequitur as the seller launches into the next question on their list. It seems like an obviously bad practice, doesn’t it? But it’s so easy to do.

As a result, the problem is pervasive, and the damage is immediate and often irrevocable. The sales rep has just convincingly demonstrated to the customer:

  • They’re scripted
  • They’re focused on selling, not helping
  • They’re focused on their own success, rather than the customer’s success
  • They’re highly unlikely to provide any value

From the customer’s point of view, this conversation needs to end as soon as possible.

The wrong next question can say all that and more.

The Right Next Question

So, what’s the right question? Well, it depends. The right next question is a direct product of whatever the customer replies to after the previous question. In sales, context is everything.

So, whatever you ask next should naturally built on everything that’s come before. You might decide to dig deeper into the side comment a prospect made about a competitor or a pain point a colleague has. Or maybe you’ll test the logic of your customer’s thinking or explore their underlying assumptions about your product/service. You might seek additional information or add some of your own and test for resonance. Again, it almost doesn’t matter. As long as what you say next comes naturally and is formed from whatever your prospect just said — you’re making progress.

How is such a seemingly obvious point so easily overlooked? As salespeople, we’re often so focused on getting to our next question we forget to actually listen to the answer that will determine what that next question should be in the first place.

Listening first, before composing the next question, takes time, thought, flexibility, and practice. But, CEB, now Gartner research shows developing your listening skills is an important tactic to help keep deals moving forward.

So, practice. A lot.

Focus on asking great next questions that follow from a customer comment rather than your previous question. After all, effective selling is based on conversation, not interrogation.

And, at the end of the day, you’ll show customers you’re listening, you understand, and, ultimately, you’re far more likely to offer real value.

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