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Why Poor Questions Hurt Your Sales And How to Create High-Value Questions Instead

Your questions, in and of themselves, have an amazing capacity to create insight and bring value to your sales encounter. Your ability to master questioning and facilitative dialogue is among the highest payoff skills in selling.

Questions that do not produce value are seen as a waste of time. The key criterion to a valuable question is that the answer provokes change for the better. When we ask questions that facilitate new understanding — how a prospect can improve their condition — they are deemed valuable.

Unfortunately, the most common questions are simply requests for information which do nothing to facilitate new understanding for the customer.  While we must ask basic information-gathering questions from time to time, it is important to remember that prospects get no benefit from them. Since the prospect already knows the answer, the value is all one-sided—yours.  Often, the answers to basic questions are found in the company’s marketing collateral or website. Research in advance.

True value-adding questions are those to which the client does not already know the answer.  They require thought, encourage reflection, advance the conversation into new territory, and the answers add value to the individuals involved.


How To Create High-Value Questions

Ok, so how exactly do we go about actually creating high-value questions?  First we need to have a little background.  Every question stimulates thinking along two dimensions:

  1. Knowledge, and
  2. Cognitive

Along the Knowledge Dimension your questions stimulate awareness which spans from simple facts, to concepts, to processes, and then an awareness of their own knowledge of a given area.  The further along this spectrum your questions are, the greater the perception of value on behalf of your client.

The Knowledge Dimension


In order to ask questions along the knowledge dimension it is important that you have some knowledge yourself.  Commit yourself to becoming an expert in your field so you have a broad range of knowledge to draw upon when crafting your questions and facilitating understanding.

Along the Cognitive Dimension your questions stimulate increasingly complex thinking from left to right which spans from basic recall, to understanding, to applying the concept themselves, to clearly analyzing and organizing the concept, to evaluating, differentiating, judging and finally creating their own designs based on the concept.

The Cognitive Dimension

The further along this spectrum your questions are, the greater the perception of value on behalf of your client.

Here we see both spectrums shown together.

Combined Knowledge and Cognitive Dimensions

Remember, the further your questions are along these two spectrums, the more value your buyer will perceive from your questions.  For example, along the knowledge spectrum, clients will not value questions that require them to rattle off business facts as much as questions that require them to consider the steps they will take to achieve an outcome and where they are currently in that process.  Along the cognitive spectrum, buyers do not value questions that cause them to simply recall or understand concepts as much as they value questions that cause them to reflect, evaluate, and judge the details in a given area.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of questions in sales interactions are simply about facts and understanding.  That is not to say that facts and understanding are not important – they are.  It’s simply that those questions are not highly valued by prospects.  When we prompt higher-level thinking, we add value.

Asking tough, powerful questions define you as a consultant and communicate your intent to genuinely help.  This alone will add a great deal of value to each encounter and differentiate you from competitors.

The Dynamics of High-Value Questions

It’s important to note that in most cases higher level questions force clients to think in ways they haven’t before.  The “Ah-ha” they get is the source of the value in the question.  In many cases they will be synthesizing new thinking right on the spot.  You can actually see the wheels turning in their heads when it’s happening.

Because customers are cognating it’s important to be aware of these dynamics:

  1. First, wait for them to respond.  Studies show that salespeople only wait about one second before either rephrasing their question, asking a new question, making an additional comment, or even trying to answer the question for the client.  The urge to fill the silence is almost uncontrollable.  Higher level questions require that you give clients time to reflect and synthesize their answer.  They will not answer in a single second.  Wait at least 3-4 seconds before speaking, so that they can contemplate what you asked them and formulate an answer.  This is called “Wait Time 1”.
  2. After their initial answer wait at least another 3-4 seconds because often the client is thinking out loud, and they will augment their answer shortly after their reply – but only if you stay quiet and allow them to finish their thoughts.  This is called “Wait Time 2”.  In group situations it’s very common for another person to jump in and add information or detail.  You want this.  Studies show that when we have patience at these two intervals, we get two to five times more information from buyers.  More importantly, however, is that clients value their experience far greater.

Wait Time 1 and 2

Tips For Asking High-Value Questions

It can take an amazing amount of self-control to pause during these two periods as clients cognate.  Until you’ve practiced it, the urge to jump in can be uncontrollable, so here is a tip that will make this process easy: Take notes.

Visibly show that you are preparing to take notes as you ask your question.  As they respond begin writing their comments and you will automatically get the four seconds of silence you need to prompt more information.  After their reply, silently take notes again.  Very often they will continue to provide more and more information during your silent note taking.  It’s quite remarkable and I highly recommend it.

Examples of High-Value Questions

Because high-level questions require more thought on behalf of prospects, it is important that you use them judiciously.  They require more mental “CPU cycles” than ordinary questions so be selective about what you ask.  Your mileage will vary, but 2-3 questions at this level is probably ideal for any given encounter.

So let’s look at some examples.  If you observe closely you’ll see that we are working fairly high up both spectrums with all of these questions:

  • As you assemble your evaluation team, how will you determine which priorities will be most heavily weighted?
  • As you design what you feel will be the ideal solution, what criteria will you use to evaluate options?
  • As you reflect on possible trade-offs or compromises, how will you determine which elements will be the most important?
  • During your evaluation, what are the steps you will be going through as a company?
  • As you reflect on your progress thus far, what do you anticipate will be the biggest challenges to integrating this into your current environment?

Use the combined spectrum and craft some of your own high-value questions.  I think you’ll be impressed by the effect it has on your clients.

Questions – Your Greatest Tool

We’re actually just scratching the surface here.  Questions are considered by many experts to be your most valuable tool.  The right questions are facilitative and will help you and the buyer:

  • Uncover what they value most.
  • Uncover the hierarchy of each individual’s preferences & preferred outcomes.
  • Reveal personal agendas & influence dynamics between the players involved in the decision.
  • Facilitate new connections in their minds & help them synthesize new understanding
  • Maintain engagement
  • Direct attention to important topics
  • Assist clients in discovering their own answers
  • Facilitate learning through articulation
  • Enhance memory
  • Elicit feedback
  • Clarify issues & eliminate assumptions

Because high-value questions require planning before each meeting they differentiate you from competitors in a very big way.  Most importantly however, the right questions are perceived as valuable.  They build rapport and trust, they establish you as a consultant, and they prove that you and the client are aligned in your interests.  Repeating this experience with clients and prospects during each encounter trains them to see you as a trusted adviser which keeps you close to them during and after the sale.

If you’re interested in exploring this subject further I highly recommend Deb Calvert’s book DISCOVER Questions Get You Connected.  I agree with her statement, “There is no easier and more affordable way to create genuine, personalized value for each and every buyer.”

You can watch a video of this of this and other concepts on THIS presentation I did for The Sales Experts Channel.  There’s also a PowerPoint there you can download as well.

Closing Tip:  Questions in an of themselves can add value to your sale encounters.  Take the time to craft High-Value Questions for every sales encounter.

Until next time!


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