Turning Questions Into Conversations

It seems basic to be told, taught, and monitored to ask questions when we communicate with clients. I can’t imagine anyone who has been trained to sell who has not been taught this lesson… and taught this lesson multiple times.  Well, I’m here to tell you it’s working! 

More and more companies are working hard to get their salespeople to ask questions.  Many are even writing the specific questions they want their salespeople to ask. Yep, we’re winning the question war with more and more sales professionals asking questions.  The problem is, it’s doing them little good. This isn’t because they aren’t asking questions; it’s because they aren’t asking the right questions.

I think it’s interesting to note that Webster’s Dictionary defines the word “question” this way: an interrogative expression often used to test knowledge.

Sounds rather menacing, and in fact, most of the questions we ask actually fit that definition.   This is due to a couple of factors:

  1. Most questions are closed questions; the answer required is typically “yes” or “no.” This creates an exchange that sounds more like an interrogation than a conversation.
  2. Most questions that are prepared ahead of time dramatically limit an opportunity for an actual discussion. Similar to working from a script, we find ourselves plowing through what has been written, rather than actually having a dialogue about it.

Go for a doctor’s appointment and you’ll typically observe the questioning rules stated above.  The conversation is uncomfortable, stiff, one-sided, and doesn’t promote a real conversation.  Minus the gown, that’s the same environment you’re creating when you ask a bunch of closed questions in rapid fire, and with no real follow-up to the responses you are receiving.  Imagine asking a sensitive question to a friend, hearing his or her answer and responding with a completely different question.

~ Anyone can ask a question, but the challenge is to create a conversation. ~

Isn’t it a conversation that we truly seek to create with others?  Once again, we go to Webster’s Dictionary which defines the word “conversation” this way: oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas.

It can be pretty easy to clean up the first mistake of asking too many closed questions. If you simply focus on the first word of every question you ask, you can solve the closed question issue. Start your sentences with, “what” or “how” or “why” or “tell” or “describe” or a host of other words like these, and you won’t have to worry about limited responses to your questions.

Cleaning up the second mistake isn’t quite as easy, but I can promise you, it will be well worth the struggle.  I’m not opposed to preparing some important, well thought-out questions in advance, but the real conversation will come from your follow-up questions to the answers you’ve just heard. For instance, I may ask to hear what my client’s long-term goals are, but when I listen to the response, I can then ask two or three more questions that dig a little deeper. That’s how I can really create a conversation. If you stay in the moment, you won’t have to look hard for these questions because they’ll be coming directly from the responses you are receiving.  These questions, or prompts, can be as simple as these: “Tell me more…” or “and then what?”

It’s these questions that show you’re truly listening.  It’s these questions that show you truly care.  It’s these questions that show you truly understand.  It’s these questions that show you are truly authentic and should be believed.  My message is this: If you want to have a real conversation with another individual, you have to do more than ask a series of well-rehearsed questions. You need to keep your questions open, listen to the answers, and follow up those responses with additional, real, genuine questions.

Related: When You're Backed Into a Confrontation Corner