A questioning approach to salesArticle added by Steve Drozdeck on February 7, 2011
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Steve Drozdeck

Logan, UT

Joined: August 21, 2010

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Knowing how to question and lead a person to a particular conclusion is an important skill for any professional. The ability to ask astute questions is possibly the most important skill you will ever learn.

Questioning causes the equivalent of a mental vacuum in the other person’s mind. Physics teaches that air rushes in to fill a vacuum. Similarly, a question creates a mental vacuum that is instantly filled with mental images and information that represent the person’s answer. Can you not think of a pink elephant? You have no choice. Your mind responds. The question directs the thought.

Each response to a question provides you with the opportunity to get more precise information about a person’s needs and desires. It allows you to somewhat direct the thought process by calling forth specific mental images in the client’s mind. As long as the person is answering your questions, you have control.

Exploratory questions are designed to help explain the other person’s wants and desires. They take the traditional forms of who, what, where, when, why and how to help us understand the other person’s view of the situation or world. Our primary focus will be on the other use of questions; that is, how to lead the other person to a particular conclusion.

Using questions to draw conclusions
Leading questions are based on the assumption that you know where you want the dialogue to go. In this context, it means that you will arrange your questions to move the person step by step through a few items of information until he or she arrives at the conclusion you have in mind. This is useful in making presentations and in coaching and counseling. To learn the technique, we’ll examine the approaches of Ben Franklin and Socrates.

Ben Franklin became a great communicator because of questioning. You know the power a question has on the mind. Let’s examine how questioning is described to us in the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin’s autobiography gives us some great communications techniques. He was a vigorous debater and wrote that he usually won his arguments – with the result that he created intensely negative feelings on the part of his defeated opponents. Franklin was thought of as brilliant but insensitive, opinionated and egotistical due to his "I win, you lose" approach. He initially saw persuasion as a competitive win-lose contest with an opponent instead of a situation calling for mutual gain. Franklin debated and argued, but he eventually learned that no one ever wins an argument. Resentments flare and resistance goes underground only to haunt the winner.
One day, a helpful friend took Franklin aside and showed him a way to win his points and leave the opponent with positive feelings. He learned that when the other person states an opinion, he (Franklin) should acknowledge the statement or agree in principle (not in substance, or with the content of an opinion) that indeed the other person has an opinion. Then ask a question about when, why, where or how the person formed that opinion. Then use his next response and the next to lead him piecemeal to a goal.

The agreeable recognition of the other person’s opinion does not implicitly criticize the person. By then asking a question, you lead the other person to the conclusion you want him to discover. After a few exchanges of this type, you will change the mind of the other person.

As Ben Franklin said, explaining a variant of the above procedure: “The best way to convince another is to state your case moderately and accurately. Then say, of course you may be mistaken about it; which causes your listener to receive what you have to say and, like as not, turn about and convince you of it, since you are in doubt.”

Socrates had a variant of this method for persuading people to his point of view. His reputation as an extraordinarily persuasive individual is well documented. His method is the essence of simplicity and is a forerunner of Franklin’s method. When Socrates wanted to change someone’s mind, he would ask them a question, observe the response he obtained, and use the response to form the next question to lead the person step by step to the result he wanted.

Socrates didn’t argue in the usual sense of raised voices and insistence about who is right and who is wrong. He didn’t need to argue, because he was always in control and was generally agreeable. He knew he could control anyone’s thinking with a question.

The dark room
The relevance of questioning can be summarized through the dark room metaphor. Suppose you were to wake up in a totally dark place with no idea of where you were. Like most people, you would get up very slowly, carefully feeling your way around until you located a light switch or a door. Otherwise, there is no telling what you might bump into or fall over. Every dialogue is like a dark room at first. Therefore it is presumptuous and risky to assume you know what is on the other person’s mind. Until you realize what is on the other person’s mind, you are in that dark room and should ask exploratory questions to shed some light on the subject. Of course, the most important questions define the client's situation and his or her version of a happy ending.
How to change a mind with questions
Now let’s see how Socrates might use his approach to sell his client, Nick, on a new type of word processing software and computer keyboard. The new software and keyboard will compute customer discounts automatically, saving the user the task of hand calculation, which is time consuming and awkward.

Nick hates to work with numbers and has argued against the change because he is worried that the new feature would be too hard to learn. Does this remind you of any of your clients as you try to introduce them to something new?

Socrates illustrates how easy and user-friendly the change can be. Notice how Socrates uses a clever selling method as they sit at the world processor together. He builds a series of yes responses and allows the client to come to the desired conclusion.

Socrates: Do you notice, the keyboard has a separate set of keys to enter numerical information?

Nick: Yes, they are just off to the side of the regular keyboard.

Socrates: Does a move of your wrist easily position your hand over the numerical keyboard?

Nick: Yes, it does.

Socrates: Would you please touch the key marked calculate and enter this set of sample figures I’m handing you now?

Nick: Okay, here goes. (He enters the numbers)

Socrates: Now that they are entered, would you touch the key marked enter and tell me what happens?

Nick: Okay (pause). Oh, wow! It enters the figures in just the right place in the letter, and the discount is already calculated.

Socrates: Does that eliminate several steps in getting answers?

Nick: Yes, it sure does.

Socrates: Is it easier to do the work this way?

Nick: Yes, it is.

Socrates: Do you prefer this new way over the old way?

Nick: Yes, of course. This is easy.
Question, observe, utilize, question: The QUOQ model
Let’s analyze this simple dialogue to find out how powerful it really is. You’ll notice that Socrates questioned Nick to identify his attitude or position on the subject at hand. Initially, Nick was a dark room. Then Socrates observed the client’s reaction and utilized that reaction to ask his next leading question. In sales, it is very useful to ask leading questions.

You would be accurate to characterize the client’s initial state of mind as uninformed. Initially, Nick did not know what was good for him. Socrates informed him of some new information, and it was enough to change his mind. This was partly because Socrates met Nick’s criteria for simplicity and ease, as well as the need for a convincing demonstration. In other words, while the new situation was better for the client, he did not realize it yet. This is often the case in sales or other persuasive situations.

Naturally, you would characterize the client’s end state of mind as informed and changed. That is, the client learned something in the dialogue and changed his mind.

It is worth noting that Socrates questioned the client into agreement with his own conclusion. He did not argue or insist on his own point of view. He found out what would convince Nick by asking first. He did no guessing, mind reading or assuming. In this case, Nick needed the calculator to be both simple and easy to learn. Socrates then asked questions that would lead to that conclusion.

This is an example of a subtle change of mind that will affect clients’ behavior directly. Nick bought the idea because it was presented to him in a way that was irresistible to him. The approach created a new and different feeling regarding something he had resisted until then.

Socrates avoided any argument or criticism. Yet, Socrates did have a planned, hidden agenda on how he was going to proceed. He was quite deliberate. Intuition was not a large factor here. Relying on intuition can be dangerous if it is not backed up by deliberate know-how. You might ask yourself, “Did Socrates sell or tell Nick?” Obviously, he sold him. He did not tell him what he ought to do. He convincingly sold him with the technique. You would also have to characterize Socrates’ strategy as indirect and persuasive rather than direct or argumentative.

Important rules of the game
Think about it from a slightly different perspective: Where do interviews, counseling sessions, meetings and presentations tend to fall apart? When disagreement over opinions turns to arguments and conflict.

You can’t communicate over the phone if there is static. Similarly, negative emotions are the kind of static that stops human communication.
How do you avoid disagreement? There are several facets to the answer:
    1. Set up your attitude and opening remarks to prevent competitive or argumentative tones and postures, i.e., “fighting words.” For example, “My job is to help you increase your business.”

    2. Don’t inadvertently try to score points at the other person’s expense. You may win the argument, but you create a win-lose situation.

    3. Try to score for a mutual payoff with the courteous attitude.

    4. Use questioning techniques to lead the dialogue in useful directions. It is virtually impossible to have a negative outcome when you control the dialogue with these techniques. In addition to being useful tools for disarming hostility, they have the virtue of being the same tools used to find out what the other person wants and his rules for making a decision. You simply use questions to find out what those questions are.

    5. Avoid interrogating.

    6. The power of these questioning techniques means you need never feel defensive. Asking leading questions such as “I notice you feel quite certain. How did you come to that conclusion?” or “what consequences will it have?” or “what if X and Y and Z were part of the consideration, how might you change your thinking?” Always ask about who, what, when, why and how as the context dictates your purpose.

    7. Focusing on the future keeps the objective pointed toward what can be done once agreement is reached.

    8. Be prepared to change your own mind and agenda. Remember, they will make some strong points, too.

    9. Learn from the wealth of information they are providing you whenever they answer any of your questions. You are getting a good look into their minds and motivations.

    10. Maintain a curious state regarding their point of view.

    11. Observe reactions carefully.

    12. Be flexible.
In conclusion, this approach can be used in almost any situation — from working with clients, to working with friends and associates, and even teenagers. By gently questioning another person, you find your way through the dark room. With additional, gentle questions, you can lead them to the light. Rather than giving someone your opinion, try the questioning approach to lead them to your opinion.

This article was taken from “What They Don’t Teach You in Sales 101” by Steven Drozdeck, Joseph Yeager, and Linda Sommer. All Rights Reserved
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