Sales Management | Sales Techniques

Selling Questions – Do They Really Matter?

You betcha!

Most sales practitioners get to the point of understanding the difference between “open” and “closed” questions and that’s about it. Open questions open up the conversation and might use phrases like “Tell me about…” , “Explain…” and so forth. Closed questions have been off the nose for a while (unjustifiably) and they seek “yes/no” answers or discrete facts and data eg “Do you have….”, “How many…” etc. Neither question type in isolation is definitively correlated with improved sales outcomes and neither is necessarily better than the other (despite the new age intoxication with open questions), but obviously they both exist in every sales encounter because they describe all questions!

There are advanced question typologies that go well beyond the simple “open/closed” notion and some have not only been repeatedly validated but also correlated with sales success if used correctly. So what are they, and which ones do you teach your sales team?

The two main schools of sales questioning are the four SPIN questions (Huthwaite) and the five Conceptual Selling questions (Miller Heiman). Both models are now taught by the one company MHI Global.

SPIN Questions:

Situational: A neutral data gathering question which when used in isolation is associated with diminished sales success but nevertheless has an important role if not over used.

Problem: Questions which uncover problems, dissatisfaction, uncertainty and other such concerns. These questions are fundamental to uncovering customer needs.

Implication: These questions explore additional (or knock on) problems or unwanted consequences of the issues which Problem questions uncover.

Need Payoff: The fourth question type explores the value or utility of a possible solution or intervention or seeks insights into the same or even investigates the knock on benefit or value in other areas.

The four SPIN questions are designed to uncover and intensify customer needs. The questions are not hard to understand but they require practice and coaching if they are to be used effectively. The intensified needs which they uncover (called explicit needs) have been repeatedly correlated with sales success, which is not surprising because correctly appealing to strong needs is the basis of effective differentiation of products and services.

Conceptual Selling Questions:

Confirmation: Checks or confirms information and is used to corroborate previously uncovered information and to check for understanding of new information. Also used to ensure the selling process is aligned with the buying process and to check the mental image that the buyer has of the required product or service solution.

New Information: As it suggests this question seeks any form of new information. There are two levels, the first uncovers the information and the second invites clarification.

Attitude: This question type explores the all important views, values, perceptions and attitudes of the buyer (not to be confused with the buying organisation). It proves to be the most difficult question type for most sales people but provides absolutely critical insights into the mind of the customer.

Basic Issue: This is a unique question type reserved for uncovering whether a customer has hidden concerns about coming out of the sales encounter devoid of personal wins or worse with some form of loss or personal disadvantage. The hidden minefields which this question is designed to uncover and deal with are so potent that they will stall even the most constructive sales encounters.

Commitment: The last question type seeks customer buy in and is commonly used at the end of a sales encounter when next steps and actions are being assigned.

There is no simple mapping of the question types in the above models although Situation Questions from the SPIN model are comparable to neutral New Information questions in the Conceptual Selling model. The Conceptual Selling Confirmation question doesn’t exist as such in the SPIN model but the Huthwaite call planning tool includes powerful customer commitment dynamics. It would be fair to say that New information and information confirmation is achieved in the SPIN model through all four question types. The SPIN model readily picks up customer attitudes which the Conceptual Selling Attitude questions are designed to uncover by virtue of the problem/value slant to the SPIN question structure. The Basic Issue Question in the Conceptual Selling model is very powerful and recogises the possibility of customer resistance beyond objections. The SPIN model does not address this directly although the application and discipline applied to the teaching and use of SPIN tends to place more focus on skilled and careful question construction and question diagnostics which is said to diminish the likelihood of customer resistance.

The above comparison of the two models is interesting but combining both provides more clout than either one in isolation. It comes down to whether you want to be at the pinnacle of your game. One of the most inspiring things about these questioning models is that they are not manipulative. The research tells us that customers exposed to them perceive the sales encounter to be more valuable. Little wonder they are more inclined to take the products and service more seriously.

In an ideal world mastering both models will give the sales professional a powerhouse of skills but neither can be successfully mastered without exposure to a skilled practitioner. There are many people who claim to have been exposed to either SPIN or Conceptual Selling but often they have not made the commitment to become proficient with the tools. If an investment is made in either you should consider how the skills will be developed and kept alive.

Both questioning models are contained within essential call planning structures and to some extent lose meaning when used outside those structures. When I work with conscientious sales people I always reinforce the importance of becoming proficient in structured dialogue, call planning and questioning. It is not enough to be able to strike up a conversation because you are a naturally engaging person. Both the seller and the buyer are busy people and they need clear and rapid value from the sales encounter. The days of chatting or talking to brochures and slide presentations are long gone. It’s hard to believe that validated behavioural techniques exist and yet many well paid sales professionals have not added them to their craft.

I am approved in several call structure and questioning models including those above. If you’d like to discuss their benefits and how you could apply them to a sales team, by all means shoot me an email.

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