Steve RayburnArticle By Steve Rayburn, Sandler Training

You’re planning to meet with a new prospect. To prepare for the meeting, you’ve carefully developed and rehearsed a series of questions to not only uncover the prospect’s needs, but also help the prospect discover the unique aspects of your product or service. You know in which direction you’d like the conversation to proceed and you’re confident you can direct it there.

So, now, you’re fifteen minutes into the sales call and the conversation is off in left field somewhere and you’re wondering, “How’d I get here?” Or, perhaps the conversation has turned one-sided. You ask your well-thought-out questions and your prospect responds with short, two- or three-word answers. It begins to sound like a cross-examination rather than a sales meeting.

Salesperson: “Wouldn’t you agree that a multi-step, criterion-based implementation plan will help your company maximize its growth potential in the early stages of cross-platform integration?”
Prospect: “I’m not sure.”

If that’s happened to you, you’re not alone. It happens to salespeople time and time again. If you want better answers from your prospects, perhaps you should send them a list of questions you plan to ask along with some suggested answers they can rehearse.

Another—and perhaps more realistic—strategy for obtaining better answers from your prospects is to ask better questions.

Most salespeople have been taught the two fundamental types of questions to ask … “open” questions designed to elicit information and “closed” questions designed to elicit a decision, commitment or conclusion.

Open questions start with who, why, what, where, when and how. Closed questions start with verbs such as: is, are, did, does, has, was, were or helping verbs such as could, should, may and can.
Open questions are effective for initiating a conversation, eliciting information, broadening the scope of the conversation and keeping the prospect involved. Let’s examine them first:

Who, Why and What questions promote discovery.

Who questions can broaden the scope of your inquiry. For example, rather than asking, “Can you appreciate the benefits of…?,” instead ask, “Who else is likely to appreciate the benefits of…?” Rather than ask, “Are you the decision maker?,” ask, “Who else is likely to have input that can influence this decision?”

Why questions are adaptable. They can be used to suggest something: Why not…? or, Why don’t you…?
Why questions can be used to promote involvement: Why do you think…? Why do you believe that?
They can be used to determine cause or elicit an explanation: Why is that? Why did he…? Why didn’t you…?

What questions are perhaps the most versatile. They can be used to uncover facts: What evidence is there to support…? What is the deadline for…?
They can be used to explore a situation or analyze one’s thinking: What would happen if…? What precisely do you mean by…?

What questions can promote involvement: What is your take on the situation? What is your view of…?
What questions can also be used to identify issues: What would that allow you to do? What would that mean to you?

Where, When and How questions promote action and commitment.

Where would you like to start? Where do the numbers have to be before you give the go-ahead? When will the final decision be made? When is it appropriate to discuss phase two of the project? How are you planning on getting this project off the ground? How will you measure increased productivity?
Closed questions are helpful in “taking your prospect’s temperature” or benchmarking your conversation. They tend to elicit “yes” or “no” answers, which are appropriate when you want your prospect to make a commitment, come to a conclusion or make a decision. Here are some examples:

Is this what you’d like to do? Are you ready to sign off on the order? Would it be appropriate to choose a starting date for the project?

If the prospect’s response to a closed question is the opposite of what the salesperson was hoping to hear, there’s a tendency for the salesperson to go into “justify, defend and explain” mode, which inhibits further conversation. To avoid that situation and promote involvement by the prospect and further positive conversation, follow undesirable responses with an open question. Here’s an example:

Salesperson: Are you comfortable signing off on the order?
Prospect: No, not really.
Salesperson: What would you need to see or hear from me to be comfortable enough to give it your thumbs up?

It’s best to keep your questions simple. Also, avoid buzzwords or technical terms unless you’re absolutely sure the other parties are thoroughly familiar with the terms. If they aren’t, it’s often easier for them to dismiss you (by remembering an important call they have to make or meeting they have to attend) than admit they don’t know what you asked. Here’s an example:
Salesperson: Will you be ready to sign a commitment letter by the end of the month and will our accounting department be able to handle 30-day billing?
Prospect: There shouldn’t be a problem with that.
There shouldn’t be a problem with what? To what, exactly, was the prospect responding? Do you see a problem waiting to happen? Separate the two thoughts and ask each independently.

Become a better listener. If you make the effort to ask better questions, make sure that you not only hear, but also understand your prospect’s responses. Repeat, summarize or paraphrase the prospect’s response. Then, check for understanding with an open question. Here are some examples: “What I believe I heard is… What did I miss?” Or, “So, your position is… What did I leave out?”
With a little thought, planning and practice, you’ll be able to obtain more information, keep a conversation flowing in the direction you want it to flow and encourage a greater level of involvement by your prospect.
Good Selling.

Steve Rayburn is an associate at Sandler Training, a world leader in innovative sales and management training. He can be reached at 336-884-1348 or

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