Sales skills for financial and insurance professionals: Ask provocative questions

By Sandy Schussel

Sandy Schussel, LLC


To be truly successful at getting clients, your passion for your work must be accompanied by the mastery of three skills:
    1. The ability to ask provocative questions
    2. The ability to listen with total focus on your client
    3. The ability to relate compelling stories and metaphors
For this article, I'd like to focus on the first of these skills.

The ability to ask provocative questions

If you've found that your prospects are backing away, it is likely that you have made the common mistake of cutting the questioning process short. You may have jumped to the solution you want to provide too early. If you're like most professionals, then you probably ask your prospects informational questions before talking about your services — who, what, where, when, how and why. While you need this information to understand how you can help your prospects, it is more valuable to you than it is to them. Your prospects already have this information.

Situational questions are more likely to help you get to the bottom of your prospects’ deeper needs. Sometimes, your simple informational questions will bring up a relevant concern — maybe even one that a prospect didn't know he or she had. Maybe the prospect is already working with someone in your field and is having some problems with that relationship or with the results he or she is getting.

Well, there they are: problems. And that's what we do, isn't it? We solve problems. So, we're done here, right? Isn’t it time to move on and into the solution?

As soon as you identify this little bit of trouble in paradise, you will, more than likely, want to pounce with your offer of services ... but if you do, more often than not, your prospect will start squirming. Here's an example of a conversation my client, Lisa, a financial advisor, experienced with a prospect who had already been working with another advisor:

Lisa: So, you haven't heard from him in over a year, and he didn't return your call the last time you tried to reach him? He also hasn't explained any of these things we've been talking about today, right? It sounds like you're not getting the service you need from him. I can promise you that I'll check in with you once a quarter, and I always return calls immediately. How about we go ahead and transfer your accounts.

Prospect: You know, actually, I've been working with this guy for almost eight years. I think I should try to talk to him again first and if he doesn't return my call, I can get back to you.

One reason this conversation may have ended as it did — with the prospect’s objection — is that the problem Lisa identified is also one that she had to imply. Your prospects are always weighing whether or not their need for change is explicit and urgent enough for it to be worth their while to do all the work required to make that change.
When there's only a vague sense of a problem, the scale tips in favor of leaving things as they are. To avoid running into a brick wall, you need to move from implied problems to explicit problems. And you can only get your prospects to see explicit problems by asking more situational questions first.

Here's how Lisa learned to handle her next conversation, after working on asking better questions:

Lisa: So you haven't heard from him in over a year and he didn't return your call the last time you tried to reach him? He also hasn't explained any of these things we've been talking about today, right? How is this level of service affecting you?

Prospect: It's a little annoying that he doesn't return my calls, but I guess I'm doing OK.

Lisa: Does it worry you that there's no one reassuring you about your retirement or letting you know the status of your accounts?

Prospect: Well, actually, that's the reason I agreed to sit down with you. I am concerned that there might be more I should be doing, or that I might need to change my strategy.

Lisa: And if you try him again, and maybe he responds this time but doesn't respond again the next time you have a concern, will that be OK?

Prospect: Well, no. I need to feel like someone is watching out for me. Maybe my account is just too small for him.

Lisa: Well, how small is it? What's at stake here?

Prospect: I mean, this is my life savings we're talking about.

Lisa: Yes, it is. So, I guess the only question is, does it make more sense for you to wait and see what happens with this guy — or to start working with someone who definitely has availability for you and who does not think your life savings is no big deal?

Prospect: I probably shouldn't wait around to be disappointed again. Can you tell me more about how you work?

To get more clients, ask provocative questions.

See also:

Ask, "What's my value to you?"

​​Insurance sales: If you don’t ask, you don’t get

Questions advisors should never ask