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Master the Art of Asking


The CEO of a growing company had spent over two years pursuing a distribution partnership with a $2 billion company, but the talks never went where he wanted them to go.

His assessment: All that time and nothing to show for it!

My response: What questions are you asking?

Like this CEO, if you’re not getting traction with sales prospects, chances are you haven’t been asking the right questions at the right time.

Successful sales focus on the steps leading to a purchase. Key questions need to be asked—and answered—at each step in the buying process. Not asking the right questions at the right time can mean lost opportunities, long sales cycles or high customer acquisition costs.

Here’s a primer for developing questioning skills that result in sales.

Quantify the Value, Qualify the Prospect

The CEO believed that his products could generate sales for the distributor. He hadn’t backed up his belief by calculating the value in dollars or asking for his prospect’s perspectives. True, approaching a much larger company with a potential opportunity can be intimidating. Regardless of your company’s size, ask yourself:

How will this prospect benefit from doing business with my company? Then do your research and quantify that benefit before you make contact. Questions for your initial approach include:

Based on analysis, our product or service can generate up to $X in annual revenue or reduced expenses for your company. When is your calendar open next week for a brief discussion?

Based on our discussions, we agree that a business relationship can be beneficial. What opportunities do you see for us to work together?

Uncover Obstacles

The CEO had done nearly a dozen demos over a two-year period. Many prospects request demos or samples as noncommittal information gathering, while salespeople see them as expressions of interest. Before you invest the time and effort in a demo, get a commitment and possible obstacles out in the open:

I’m happy to provide you with a demo, and if the demo is successful, is there anything that will prevent you from moving forward to a purchase or agreement?

Salespeople sometimes avoid this question, and when they don’t ask, they lose perspective as well as momentum on the sale. Asking early in the process allows you to uncover and address concerns, as well as assess the prospect’s level of commitment.

Validate the Decision Maker

The CEO had spoken with more than 10 executives in the prospect company and still wasn’t sure how decisions were made or by whom. Determine whether you are talking to the decision maker, a decision influencer or a potential champion. If you’re not sure, these questions are critical:

Are there others in the company who need to be in the loop as we move forward?

Who else is involved signing off on this purchase or agreement?

Confirm Commitment

No matter where you think you are in your sales process, confirm where the buyer is in the purchase process. The sale isn’t moving forward unless you confirm commitment and address unknown questions. Uncover these at every step in the process by asking:

Is there anything that we haven’t discussed that can impact our moving forward?

As it turns out, the CEO persisted. With coaching and practice, he developed his questioning skills and reapproached the prospect—this time securing a distribution agreement.

Asking is an art that takes practice and timing. How good are your questioning skills?

Elizabeth Usovicz

Written by

Elizabeth Usovicz is principal of WhiteSpace Consulting®, specializing in top-line revenue strategies, business development coaching, qualitative research and strategy session facilitation. She can be reached at elizabeth@whitespacerevenue.com or (913) 638-8693.

Categories: Sales, Sales and Marketing


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