by Troy A. Waugh

In his book “Spin Selling,” Neil Rackham discovered that sellers are fearful of asking problem questions, while buyers welcome them. Buyers report that professionals who ask problem questions seem to understand the business, seem to talk about valuable things, and are more interesting.

There is a major difference between plain questions and good questions. Many sales experts advise you to ask “open-ended” questions. That is good advice, as long as the question is related to a problem. To encourage prospects to tell you their problems, you may have to design powerful questions that demonstrate that you are a person worthy of the answers.

First, design good dialogue questions. Have you watched Barbara Walters interview a person? She uses dialogue questions to show knowledge, empathy and sincerity, and to encourage the interviewee to tell intimate things he may have never told anyone else before.

Asking good dialogue questions is easy once you have the framework down. A dialogue question contains three parts: An observation, a contrast or comparison, and a request for an opinion.

Here is an example: “Mr. Jones, I noticed that you have 15 people in your accounting department.” (There’s the observation.) “We have other clients in your business and similar in size to you who only have eight to 10 people working in accounting.” (Followed by the comparison.) “In what ways do you find the additional people to be helpful?” (Finishing with a request.)

Watch good interviewers on television. The best have done their homework and have solid dialogue questions.

Dialogue questions that confirm or eliminate problems are good questions for discovering problems. For example, “Mr. Jones, I was reading an article in Manufacturing Today magazine about the companies that are moving their production to other countries. When we came in this morning, we noticed that you were adding on to your facility. How are you successfully fighting the trend toward moving production offshore?”

Most smart sellers develop a list of tried-and-true questions. You can do this too. By having a list of 20 problem-dialogue questions, you will be able to stimulate hours of helpful conversation with a prospect. By asking good questions, you can lead your prospect to begin to trust and respect you.

By preparing your questions in advance, you will make certain that the questions are as effective as you can make them. While your presentation can appear spontaneous, interjecting the right questions will guide you through the problem phase of selling.

Here is a method to develop your list of 20 questions. First, brainstorm all the questions you might ask. Write questions that cover subjects both inside and outside your area of expertise. Get as many down on paper as possible, perhaps three times the number you hope to end up with.

Second, refine your questions so that you will demonstrate and engender trust. Avoid questions that intimidate or imply blame. Remember, problem questions will always have one of the following words (or their synonyms) in it: problem, crisis, trouble, puzzle, difficulty, irritant or quandary.

Third, develop a sequence by asking the most general questions first and moving to the more specific. Remember that the final question you ask will be a closed-ended one, to which the answer should be, “Yes.”

Fourth, rehearse your questions with another person. Make sure you are comfortable with the phrasing. You must ask about the problems without sounding like a know-it-all or making the prospect seem like an idiot. This takes skill. Also, repetition will help you remember your wording and order.

Last, before asking a series of questions, get permission from your prospect to ask them. Do your best to make the questions conversational. Try not to back the prospect into a corner or belittle the person. Remember, the skill of asking questions at this phase of selling is quite different from the skills you might use in an audit or in a courtroom.

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