In Sales, Questions are More Valuable than Answers

Inspired by “A day at the park” by Kostas Kiriakakis.

I spend a lot of my time helping people sell the software I write. For scalability, this often means teaching them how to sell it themselves. When I’m teaching people, which happens informally and formally, often times they want to know the questions the prospect will ask, and what answers they should give. The FAQ, as it were, so they can have the answers at the ready. And they don’t just want the technically correct answers, they want the answers that will encourage the prospect to buy. “What should I say if they ask what I think about competitor X?”, things like that.

Do You Have Something Against Answers?

Experienced account executives and solution consultants are more focused on stories. They want to know where we have made other customers successful, what the situation was, why that customer needed new software, how our software met the need. Their hope is that if they know enough stories, they can find a story of past success that matches the customer situation at hand, tell the story, and get the customer imagining what their success will look like. It’s a good plan, and often works. It’s a better strategy than just answering questions, because people actually buy stuff when they are emotionally engaged, not just analytically. Stories are a good way to engage people.

There is something better than either answers or stories. The most important thing a technical sales professional can bring to a conversation with a prospect is not answers or stories, but questions. And I don’t mean analytic questions like “Linux or Windows?” or “How many transactions per second will the solution need to perform?” When engaging a customer, what you really want to find out is what they are worried about, why they are considering the risk of yet another new software product or new software project. You want to demonstrate that you understand their concerns, and the environment in which they are operating, and that by working with you they will be smarter and more successful.

Reality Can Change

In order to find out what people are worried about, sometimes you can ask directly. But with most prospects, particularly in group situations, they will be too guarded for that. What you want to do is ask questions that relate to the project and the business context around the technical solution, which find you the information you need.

  • “What is wrong with the system you are replacing?”
  • “What happens if you do nothing?”
  • “Have you considered running two of them side by side?”
  • “What is unique about your environment or business? What customization will be required?”
  • “What is driving growth in your business? Profitability?”

You can’t spend all your time asking questions. You have to earn the right by presenting your product and answering their questions. But you can probably ask more questions than you realize. People like to talk about themselves and their problems. Not only will you learn things by asking questions, the prospect may come to understand their problem better as they take the time to answer good questions.

You also want to demonstrate you understand their market, and make suggestions in the form of questions. There is a good chance that whatever system you are talking about, your customer has only built one of them. In fact, they may have build zero of them so far. You, coming from the vendor, have probably seen several customers do similar things, and maybe had dozens of conversations about this potential solution. Bringing up your knowledge in the form of questions is non-threatening.

  • “Are you going to be integrating per-customer analytics into the solution, or giving everyone the same analysis?”
  • “What segmentations do you have in mind? Will that impact the roll out plan?”
  • “How will your business partners measure or visualize the success or failure of the system on a day by day basis?”
  • “Will you calculate ROI by comparing revenue to last year, or with a more sophisticated attribution model?”
  • “Are you planning for regulatory change?”

Some of these questions will be particular to the industry or the solution, but many of them are nearly universal.

Questions Attract Better Questions

That universality is empowering. Questions have much more staying power than answers. Answers are always changing, by the time you write them down they are probably out of date. Information I know about my competitors is like that. But so is information about what other customers are doing, or what the next big regulatory change might bring. Answers about data volumes, rates, latencies, these are all information that goes out of date very quickly. Sometimes when preparing a sales enablement briefing I want to put an expiration date on it. Unlike answers, questions can live for a very long time. They are more portable between industries and products. They can continue to elicit new information, new answers from prospects, but also new discussion, and new stories.

As you prepare for customer meetings, don’t just bring answers. Bring good questions.

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