Identifying Needs: Asking the right questions

school-kids-0167Identifying client requirements is an essential component of being a good sales person/negotiator. There is only one way to find out what a client wants and that is to get them talking. Good salespeople and negotiators spend more time listening than talking and are adept at using questioning skills to uncover client needs. The best way to get a client to talk is by asking relevant questions to the situation. Using the right type of questions can make your job easier than you might think.

There are two types of questions (open and closed) and both have their advantages and disadvantages. Getting the balance right between open and closed questions can make dialogue much easier and consequently the flow of information is more readily exchanged.

Closed Questions

These questions require a client to answer yes or no. Closed questions can be used to control a dialogue. They can even be used to pre-condition a person into saying yes. Ask three closed questions one after the other where the answer is yes and the likelihood of the fourth answer to a question being yes is significantly increased since a habit of responding yes has been formed. The same applies if the response is no. Three closed questions with a no response means that subsequent closed questions are likely to be met with a no.

Whilst closed questions can be used to ascertain positive and negative responses and even hone in on specifics, closed questions do not encourage a client to open up and conversation can often be short, sweet and awkward. Closed questions begin with phrases such as;

• Are you?

• Do you?

• Could you?

• Would you?

• Will you?

• Can you?

Open Questions

Open questions simply encourage the client to open up and provide information relevant to the discussion. They can also help develop a feeling of mutual interest and trust. Open questions should be designed to help you gather information that will enable you to offer a solution to a customer need. Open questions should enable you to find out what products or services the customer currently uses and how he or she feels about them.

Open questions begin with;

• Who?

• What?



• When?


• How?

Open questions can be preceded with the TELL ME phrase. Tell me who? Tell me when? Tell me how? Tell me why? etc. This is a personal choice and should only be used when you feel the other person would be comfortable with such a lead. It can be deemed as an instruction and used inappropriately can lead to the other party clamming up and providing little or no information

Tactical and Strategic Open Questions

There are two distinct types of open questions:

Tactical Open Questions give you data

• What is your customer ref number?

• How many employees are there?

• What is your telephone number and address?

• What type of process do you use?

• How often do you tender?

Tactical open questions are excellent in gaining information that you might need at a later stage to prepare a clear and specific proposal.

For example;

Which airport do you want to fly from?

What dates for travel do you have in mind?

How many people will be travelling?

What level of budget are you looking to spend?

Strategic Open Questions tell you how the other party feels and reveals their buying motives.

• What is the reason?

• Why did you buy?

• What do you think?

• What would it mean to you if?

• How important is it to you that?

Asking strategic questions can be very powerful. This is where the real value is to be found. However strategic open questions can be felt intrusive and therefore requires an element of trust and empathy to be exhibited by the questioner. However, if one can master the skills of asking strategic open questions, one should be able to build trust and rapport with client’s enabling good value judgements to be made.

Building good rapport with the other party can only serve to strengthen your position when you make a proposal at a later stage. Be sincere and professional when asking any questions, but especially those that are strategic in nature. You are venturing into how people feel and that can be considered unwelcome in the business environment.

Build a database of open and closed questions (Tactical and Strategic) and regularly review them prior to any meeting with a client. This will serve to remind you ahead of the meeting a number of appropriate questions to ask. That way you can then build a proposal based on the things that are important to the client.

Here are a few example questions to get you started;

How have you been since we last met?

What do you do when you are not working?

How have things changed since your new marketing campaign?

What do you see as your competitors strengths?

What do you need to be better than your competitiors?

What would happen if………?

Why is that important to you?

What is your reasoning behind your statement?

How do you decide on which supplier to choose?

What is your decision making process?

What time scales are you working to?

What is your level of interest in our proposal?

In which areas are our competitors stronger than us?

Where do we need to improve to get your approval?

What deadlines do we need to be aware of?

I look at my database of questions frequently. This prompts me to think of the type and relevancy of questions I need to ask before I go into a meeting.  Choose the right questions and increase your chances of making a proposal that will win the business.