The Five Question Sales Call

Years ago as part of a client engagement, I accompanied one of my client’s sales reps in an effort to learn more about their sales process and their company’s clientele. During one particular call, we met the prospect in the lobby, exchanged pleasantries and followed him to his office. Once we arrived, he looked at the sales rep and asked, “So, tell me about your company.”  The sales rep launched into his pitch, which included company history, product line features and unique selling propositions.  The prospect was very polite, listening the entire time.  When the sales rep was done, he asked the prospect if he had any questions, to which the prospect answered “No”.  At that point, the sales rep became flustered. In an effort to keep the conversation going, he stumbled over his words as he looked for something else to talk about that might grasp the attention of the prospect. But it was to no avail.  After 20 minutes, we were thanked for our time, and we were on our way.

Unfortunately, this is an all too familiar scenario.  Too many sales people talk too much, and listen too little.  Often times this happens because they don’t know what to ask. Yes, in a perfect world, a sales person would have done his/her “homework”, would have the necessary background and context, and would even have pre-qualified the prospect. Doing so would give them a basis for launching a conversation. However, in the real world, there are many times where reps find themselves in selling situations where they don’t have the luxury of background or context, and are still expected to “sell”.  Trust me, I’ve been there too many times to count. And when that happens, I use The Five Question Sales Call. It goes like this…

  1. The Confirming Question: “My understanding is…it that accurate?”
    When faced with situations like I’ve just described, the key is to turn the tables on the prospect, and begin discovering.  Open ended questions such as, “What interested you in seeing me today?” or “How did you learn about our company” will begin to let the prospect reveal more about their current state.  Follow up questions like “Tell me more about…”, or “Help me understand how…” will give further insight.  When you feel you have a grasp on the situation, you close this section with “So, my understanding is that (explain the situation, problem, pain point). Is that accurate?”  Get confirmation from the prospect that you’ve accurately explained things. Then move to question #2.
  2. The Possibilities Question: “What are possible solutions you have or are trying?”
    Chances are they are not sitting idly by, waiting for their problem to solve itself. They’ve most likely tried or are considering trying a variety of things.  Wouldn’t it make sense for you to know, so that when you eventually suggest an idea, you are not met with “We already tried that”? This part of the conversation can be phrased as follows:  “Boy, it must be frustrating to be coming up against that roadblock.  Can you give me some insight into what you have done, or what you are doing, or what you are thinking of doing to overcome that obstacle?”
  3. The Accomplish Question:  “What are you trying to accomplish?”At this point, you may have some insight into their goals based on your dialogue in question #1. However, what you are going for here is an understanding of what the “ideal state” is for the prospect.  In light of what your company provides, seek to understand the prospect’s specific goals, objectives, etc. You may phrase it like, “So, in light of (situation, problem, pain point), what exactly are you trying to achieve? What does success look like?”
  4. The Obstacles Question:  “What obstacles are you facing?”
    If they have not achieved success, then there’s a reason for it. Something is in their way.  So, seek to find out what it is.  Is it budget?  Internal fighting? Market forces?  Lack of resources?  What’s keeping them from being where they want to be?  Here’s an example: “Getting to (ideal state) sounds like it would be of tremendous benefit.  What’s keeping you from getting there?”
  5. The If I Could Question:  “If I could…would you…?”
    If you get this far in the conversation (one by the way where the prospect is doing most of the talking), then you should have a good understanding of their current situation, their goals, the obstacles they face and the solutions they’ve tried.  Once you feel you have as much information as you are going to get, you finish your line of questioning with something like, “Well, based on what we’ve discussed, if I could show you how to achieve your goals, and do so by sidestepping the obstacles we discussed, would you be interested in learning more?

In all the years that I’ve used this conversation framework, I’ve only had one instance where the prospect said “No” to the last question (and I didn’t want to work with that guy anyway :-).  This process of discovery and listening builds trust.  And because trust between you and the prospect has increased during the interchange, they will be more open to hearing how you and your company can help solve their problem.

One last thing…this 5 question process isn’t just for sales calls. It can be used in a variety of relationship interactions. I’ve used it when interacting with vendors, employees, even my kids. It’s simply a framework, the key to which is listening, and listening well.  When we listen, we then understand. And understanding puts us in a position to help.