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The Art and Science of Layered Sales Questions

Posted by Carole Mahoney on 1/27/17 1:30 PM

At this past week’s #livesaleslab we talked about asking questions. It came up in nearly every conversation we had in the past week with new coaching clients so it was hard to ignore. I have always called it drill down questions, but I like layered better because drill down seems forced, and layers are more gentle and natural. Like cake, or even onions. There we go- buyers are like onions. Like Shrek.

Shrek- buyers have layers.png

Questions are Evidence of the Art AND the Science of Sales

The most important, and most difficult, part of developing a salesperson’s competencies is asking questions during the buying process. When we scientifically evaluate salespeople (and leaders too) the data usually reveals that they're not asking enough tough, insightful, thought-provoking questions.

The problem is most evident when salespeople have a sales process that they are more focused on going through and to the next step then they are focused on buyer behavior.

What happens when salespeople start to ask questions that are based solely around the sales process of qualification or disqualification, budget, buying authority, etc.? They get a kind of myopia that these are the steps that they need to go through without ever stopping to consider, “Do I really understand everything that's going on here with this buyer?”

They may understand about the problem and how the solution they're selling solves it. But do they understand why it's a problem for the buyer? Do they understand what they've tried before that has or hasn't worked and why? Do they understand the risk and cost to both the business and the buyer personally if the problem isn’t resolved?

This is one side of the science of what is happening with the salespeople. But what is happening with the buyers when salespeople ask the only the problem, product and process questions?

Buyers are having a hard time trusting the salesperson. Why? Because research tells us buyers are like onions, they (like us) have layers. This is why we coach salespeople to take baby steps, ask small non-threatening questions that earn the salesperson the right to ask the tougher, challenging and probing questions that get to the real issue and urgency to fix it.

You might be wondering where the art comes in. Remember- human beings are dynamic, the art of sales comes from that 1-1 human interaction. Science can only  inform us of the patterns that help give us the thing to say at the right time. But the salesperson is still the performer.

Humans still want to buy from other humans that understand them.

A few examples of layered sales questions

The first layer of questions are asked to make sure the salesperson understands the problem and can determine if it is something they can fix. We want to understand how they frame the problem in their mind. And then how they're going about looking for solutions to that problem.

In order to help buyers and understand the problem, salespeople need to first understand how they identify the problem and got to this point.

  • How did we get on your radar?
  • What phrase did you type into your Google search?
  • What else have you found?
  • Who else have you talked to?
  • What did you mean when you replied X on the form?
  • What has been happening?
  • How long has it been that way?
  • What do you think caused it?
  • What have you already tried?
  • What worked?
  • What didn’t work?

Most salespeople stop here. This is all their sales process requires for them to ask. And that is the unfortunate part, because it’s all the layers after that matter the most. It’s the next layers that differentiates the salesperson, accelerate the process, and enable buying based on value- not price.

The second layer of questions explores why something is a problem and whether or not the buyer knows that it. This second layer in your thread of questions needs to explore more about what you discovered in the first layer by asking potential buyers their perspectives and to explain more about what they stated in the first layer.

Why is this so important? A Stanford University study showed that when “elaboration questions” were asked, it helps the asker (ie: salesperson) understand other’s viewpoints. The study also found that these types of questions helped the person being asked (ie: the buyer) be more receptive to other ideas- even if they are contrary to their own.

Another study from Harvard University how disclosing information impacts the human brain. The functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showed those who answered questions that required them to state their opinions “increased activity in the area of the brain associated with reward and pleasure.”  That means buyers actually enjoy answering these types of questions!

Here are some examples of second layer questions:  

  • Why is it your responsibility?
  • Has it always been this way?
  • Why do you think that X worked?
  • Why not continue to do X?
  • If there was one thing you could change about X, what would it be?
  • Why do you think Y didn’t work?
  • Why do you think that solution will work best?
  • Why did your boss decide to go in that direction?
  • Why do you believe that Z is causing the issue?
  • What do you think the solution is or should be?
  • What do others think the solution is?

The third layer of questions is perhaps my favorite because it gets to why is this important to fix. What are the consequences if it is not fixed? How will it impact them? This third, and most important level of questions gets to the buying motivation or reason to change the status quo. It also gets buyers to move closer to what they desire or wish to avoid. Understanding how they think they will benefit from the solution enables the salesperson to show how their solution satisfies the buyer’s motive. This is how salespeople build trust with buyers because they feel that the salesperson “gets them”.

Here are a few examples:

  • When do you need results by?
  • How would those results impact you or the company?
  • This seems important to you, may I ask why?
  • What would happen if this doesn’t get resolved?
  • Who else does this impact?

Do you want to start trying it out for yourself and align it to your sales process and your buyer’s buying process? Download the editable Layered Question Framework kit for more sample questions.

Map the steps.

Topics: sales techniques, sales coaching, sales questions, sales science