DETROIT — “It’s hard to believe a research project by a tech company can help us with our sales skills,” intoned Gerry with a pained expression, then continued his stream of consciousness, “the fact that they were able to segment top salespeople and low performers by their use of questions in their sales pitch is very interesting.”
Gerry was responding to my reference of a Harvard Business Review article, The Surprising Power of Questions, by Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John. The article cited numerous studies on the impact that questions can have on conversations. One of the studies was conducted by a tech company called Gong.io that focused on the impact of questions in sales conversations.
After analyzing over 500,000 sales conversations (phone and online platforms), they were able to uncover a direct connection between the number and sequence of questions asked and the rate of conversion, ranging from mini-closing for next meeting to closing the sale. According to this study, the optimum number of questions was 11 to 14, but there was “a point of diminishing returns” if more than 14 questions were asked.
I was impressed with the breadth of the study, where Gong.io uncovered an important coaching point in the sales process; not only did top salespeople typically ask more questions, they “scattered” them throughout the sales call. The result was making a direct sales pitch seem more like a conversation. On the flip side, the low performing salespeople front-loaded their questions in the first part of the sales call, so they made some mistakes. They didn’t ask enough questions, and the questions they did ask were early in the dialogue. Not only did they come across as “salesy,” but their presentation came across more like an interrogation.
In another study by Brooks and her team at Harvard concluded that when questions are properly asked, the two major goals of conversation can be accomplished:
- Information exchange
- Impression management (liking)
This isn’t new as the authors made a point to reference Dale Carnegie and a couple of nuggets of advice from his 1936 classic How to Win Friends and Influence People.
- Be a good listener.
- Ask questions the other person will enjoy answering.
For years we’ve been coaching advisors to ask questions, listen and use a conversational tone in social interactions—but to do so with strategic intent. In other words, making their sales pitch seamless. And it works!
We’ve found the following to be the critical ingredients in maximizing the power of questions: tone, sequence and follow-up. Each play a key role, so let’s take a closer look:
- Tone: You want to come across more on the casual side, rather than overly business-like. When you’re conversational, it puts people at ease, whereas being overly formal can sometimes make it hard for them to relate.
- Sequence: As the Gong.io study discovered, scattering questions throughout the sales call is most effective. As you know, your world of affluent prospecting is different than the salespeople in their study. You’re not necessarily having a sales call when you find yourself chatting with an affluent prospect at some social event. Yet the Dale Carnegie idea of asking questions people enjoy answering, and listening attentively to the response creates a natural sequence—it keeps you in position for a follow-up question. This ensures that your questions are both relevant to the conversation and seamlessly scattered throughout.
- Follow-up: Communication experts consider follow-up questions to be the most powerful in the question family. Why? Because they signal that you’re listening, you care about what is being said, and you want to know more. This facilitates what I referenced earlier as the two major goals of conversation: information exchange and impression management (liking).
I find it interesting that a tech company’s research in business-to-business (phone and online sales) came to the same conclusion as our elite research (face-to-face affluent sales): Top performers listen more, speak less, and master the power of questions. This highlights a sales truism—top performers across all industries have a lot in common.
Matt Oechsli is author of Building a Successful 21st Century Financial Practice: Attracting, Servicing & Retaining Affluent Clients. www.oechsli.com.