Skilled B2B sellers focus on understanding buyers’ needs and where the buyer is in their journey. They understand the motivation behind those needs—what problems or challenges their product or solution can address or what opportunity it can help the buyer capitalize upon. They know the stakeholders involved in the buying decision. And they understand how the buyer will attain budget and how they will justify the expense.
How do sellers acquire all this information? By asking the right questions.
In his 1936 classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie advised, “Be a good listener.” His advice remains true today.
Sellers Like to Talk
Salespeople sometimes find it hard to do more listening than talking. We’re a communicative bunch, and we’re sure that what we’re selling will benefit our buyer’s organization. Gee, it might even change their life! So, we want to tell them all about it. All the reasons they need it. All the ways in which it will benefit them. All the results they can expect from it.
That’s all well and good, but there’s a time for talking. Remember what many of our parents told us? You have two ears and one mouth, so listen twice as much as you talk. Sellers would do well to heed that advice.
When engaging in a complex B2B sale, there is so much to learn about the buyer, their motivations (both personal and professional), the buying committee, the organization’s needs, whether you are displacing an existing vendor (and if so, why!) or bringing the company an entirely new solution. Then there is timing and budget information, the nuances of the organization’s decision-making process, and so much more.
But buyers don’t readily share all this information or easily let others in on the inner workings of their organization. And if a seller does not yet have a strong relationship with the buyer, the absence of trust and confidence presents a barrier.
So, you can’t expect a buyer to gush all their innermost thoughts without sufficient prompting. To gain this critical knowledge requires asking the right kind of questions. And it’s not merely for the sake of acquiring information. Asking the right questions allows you to delve into what buyers know, think, desire, and feel. As a result, you can put yourself in their shoes because you have an appreciation for their unique worries and concerns. You are then in a better position to create a stronger, more enduring relationship. And, knowing where they are intellectually and emotionally enables you to pull them forward toward a solution to their problem, which is easier than pushing them in your direction.
Spend more time listening than talking so you understand how best to serve your client.
The Power of Asking Questions
The Greek philosopher Socrates devised a disciplined form of questioning that was originally designed to help students explore ideas and develop critical thinking. Socrates engaged in active questioning that focused on fundamental concepts, issues, and problems, and that was meant to lead his students to discover logical conclusions rather than simply lecturing and providing them with the answers.
When applied to selling situations, it’s about probing more deeply into the buyer’s mindset, so you are certain to gain a full conceptual grasp of the meaning behind what you are hearing. Start by asking open-ended questions. For instance, you wouldn’t ask a yes/no question such as, “Are you the only one involved in making a purchase decision?” Instead, say, “Tell me about your buying process, if you don’t mind.” Or, “Explain to me who else is involved in purchasing for your company.”
Socratic-style questions set the stage for getting to know your customer better. Unlike “closed” questions, open-ended questions avoid introducing bias and manipulation. These kinds of questions often start with phrases such as:
Describe for me… What do you think about… Tell me your reasons…
What do you see as… How does that… Why would you… Tell me about…
Benefits of Listening
More knowledge about the buyer. People are more willing to share information when they know they are heard.
Deeper connection with the buyer. Good listeners convey that they are interested in what a person is saying, which signals to the speaker that what they have to say matters. This is foundational to all relationships and certainly true in seller-buyer relationships.
Strengthens empathy with the buyer. A good listener not only hears what is said but is able to respond in ways that reflect that the speaker has been understood. In selling scenarios, this lets the buyer know that the seller is truly engaged and that buyer and seller are “in it together.”
Asking questions helps sellers uncover information. It signals to the buyer that you are actively engaged with them, their business, and their challenges. It shows interest and curiosity and demonstrates empathy.
In The Surprising Power of Questions, two Harvard Business School professors explore the value of asking questions to an organization. “Questioning is a uniquely powerful tool for unlocking value in organizations: It spurs learning and the exchange of ideas, it fuels innovation and performance improvement, it builds rapport and trust…and it can mitigate business risk by uncovering unforeseen pitfalls and hazards.” The authors were not writing about selling situations, but one can readily see the direct application.
Follow-up questions were found by the Harvard researchers to have surprising power. “They signal to your conversation partner that you are listening, care, and want to know more. People interacting with a partner who asks lots of follow-up questions tend to feel respected and heard.”
The Power of Questioning in Sales
Science supports the fact that good questioning is—without question—essential in sales. A recent study of more than 500,000 B2B sales conversations, both over the phone and online, reveals that top-performing salespeople ask questions differently than their peers. The data even shows a connection between the quantity of questions and sales conversion rate (i.e., securing the next meeting and eventually closing the deal), after controlling for salesperson gender and call type, such as demo, proposal, negotiation, etc.
“However, there is a point of diminishing returns. Conversion rates start to drop off after about 14 questions, with 11 to 14 being the optimal range.
“The data also shows that top-performing salespeople tend to scatter questions throughout the sales call, which makes it feel more like a conversation than an interrogation. Lower performers, in contrast, frontload questions in the first half of the sales call, as if they’re making their way through a to-do list.
“Just as important, top salespeople listen more and speak less than their counterparts overall. Taken together, the data from Gong.io affirms what great salespeople intuitively understand: When sellers ask questions rather than just make their pitch, they close more deals.”
Highlighting Value for the Customer
Starting a call with a compelling opening statement that grabs the buyer’s attention is essential. The challenge is retaining their attention. When a salesperson says they have something that may be important to a buyer, they should follow up with questions to verify the buyer’s potential need and validate their level of interest.
Go for a balance of what might be interesting to the buyer, with why other similar companies have found your product or service valuable. Keep asking open-ended, rather than yes or no questions. This allows the buyer to describe what interests them and gives the seller a basis for asking further questions. A good example of an open-ended question that would lead to follow-up questions is, “What is your procurement process?” You’ll undoubtedly want to get further clarification on the answers. Keep the buyer’s curiosity up so you can continue to probe. All the while, you are gaining an understanding of why your product may be important to the buyer and of the major factors affecting their buying process.
Ideally, the customer should be talking two to three times more than the seller. The art and the magic of good listening is in how you establish credibility for yourself and develop and maintain a high level of trust on the part of the buyer by making pertinent inquiries.
However, to reiterate the research about high performers, sales reps should be careful that they are not just running through a checklist of questions. And they need to make sure they are always providing value to the buyer. This can come from demonstrating a strong knowledge of their industry or product landscape and the problems associated with the market they operate in. You have to show buyers that you understand their world. Rattling off a series of questions by rote isn’t the way that’s done. Be aware that the buyer won’t open up to you unless you explain what’s in it for them.
Making a Difference with Conversation Intelligence Tech
People aren’t necessarily born with good listening skills. Listening is often a learned practice, and no matter how skilled the sales rep is, there is always room for improvement.
To identify areas in which each sales rep can improve call effectiveness, sales leaders can look to various Conversation intelligence technology that can offer tremendous value in assisting sellers with improving their skills and their managers with identifying areas of improvement. These sophisticated software records and analyzes calls, tracks key moments during a call, and focuses on specified topics, phrases, and words where a sales rep can deliver more appropriate responses.
Using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to provide sellers feedback in real-time is emerging. Video calls, which became a necessity during COVID, continue to be an effective way to engage customers and prospects. There are technologies that measure a seller’s eye contact with the camera, facial expressions, camera angle, pacing, patience, filler words, etc., as well as tools that allow a rep to practice their message until they get it right and share with managers and peers for feedback.
Many platforms incorporate Conversational Intelligence (CI) software to analyze video and audio conversations for coaching purposes. CI uses AI to provide data-driven insights into rep and buyer interactions, allowing managers and sellers to pinpoint areas needing the most work. Mature organizations leverage CI to share best practices and to inform their one-on-one coaching sessions.
For the latest information on AI, CI, and other sales tech tools, read our blog Cracking the Sales Tech Stack Code.
Listening is an art that, when mastered, delivers massive returns. Your customers will feel heard and valued, and you’ll create lasting relationships that transcend transactions and create opportunities for both you and your customer.
More than your product, your customer needs to have confidence that you understand their dilemmas and goals and care about solving them as if they were your own. The only way to get there is to listen—authentically and relentlessly.
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Author: Steve Bonvissuto
Steve is Vice President of Innovation at MarketSource. He is an accomplished executive with more than 30 years of experience translating strategy into results for Fortune 500 companies. Steve leads, motivates, and mentors to continuously improve the delivery of services to create more value for customers and employees.