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Adding value through questions in successful sales, coaching and leadership

Updated: Oct 28, 2023

Recently we won a great client deal by only asking questions. It was one Tuesday afternoon, when I went with my junior account manager to one of our potential clients.

We agreed that we would be stretching ourselves by only asking questions. But we did it, and we won! After a meeting that lasted about 2 hours, the potential client asked us for a proposal, and after a week we won the deal. We were so happy. And we also wondered why we didn’t do this more often!

Asking questions is an art. And it doesn’t start only with the simple difference between open and closed questions. These 2 types of questions are very useful, but it doesn’t stop there.

I would like to give some insights, tools and aspects of asking questions you need in order to be successful, in any field. This is because asking questions adds value, whether you do it in Sales, in Coaching or in Leadership.

Firstly, it is very important to have an intention. The intention makes the difference to how a question is perceived. It makes a world of difference whether the intention is to be curious or to close a deal. You can ask the same open question to someone, but in the first case you could be perceived as genuinely interested, and in the second case, with the same open question, you could be perceived as pushy. Your intention is your inner motivation; it is what you want to achieve for yourself on a high level. And your state, your tone of voice and your non-verbal communication will be aligned to this intention.

Secondly, your state is very important. A relaxed state, or conversely an impatient state, will influence your tone of voice, or better said, how your communication is perceived.

Thirdly, it is important to realise that both open and closed questions are really

powerful. The open question is an invitation for more information, and the closed question is an invitation to direct to a choice in the answer or to check something specific.

Fourthly, you really add value through asking about consequences. In various models for sales, but also for coaching, the power of consequences, or effects and implications, add value. Why, you might ask yourself? Well, the value is created when someone feels the pain or the gain of something. When a client summarises their problems or business challenges, or whatever they prefer to call them, they feel the problem or challenge more when you ask them about the consequences or the impact on various areas. It is the same in coaching.

Whenever someone realises the consequences they are more inclined to take action than when you ask questions about the causes. Sometimes, that is why the why questions are really ineffective. Because people answer with because (like I am doing now), and they tend to give the reason or thought they already have in their minds. Asking for the consequence, or the effect, or implication, or intention or purpose are more effective a lot of the time.

The fifth point is about a cycle in questions. A lot of questioning models in sales, coaching and leadership use a certain structure or cycle. This could start with something general like a context or a situation, or even with the end result in mind, in the form of a goal or an intention. Usually these are followed by challenges, problems, or reality questions: things from now; things that the client wants to get rid of; or even a reality check that is different from what they have now. This is applicable to coaching, to sales and to leadership.

After that, there are the effects or implications. These are built into the purposes, as mentioned earlier. They increase the pain or the gain of what someone wants, or what they don’t want. There are indicators for motivations that are either towards or away from. Then there are obstacles. This usually brings the client back to themselves, especially when a clear distinction is made between what the client perceives as influential and what as not. And finally there is the turning point, the way forward, the future and what someone would do or what would happen for her or him to be satisfied. This is where the value is created as well, especially when the client is not only seeing but feeling the value, and telling him or herself that this is the way forward. In sales we call this a closed deal, in coaching we call this a way forward, and in leadership we call this motivation of a team or a leader. In all cases it is about a feeling; a feeling that is great and has added value. It is pain and then the gain, because sunshine comes after rain.

The sixth point is that chunking questions are important. Why? What? How? What if? When? These are beautiful open questions. Chunking is a reference to how people chunk information in their brain. This can be abstract, specific or lateral. Chunking-up questions are questions that chunk up to a higher or abstract level. For example, for “a Volvo XC90 type car”, you would go from “Volvo XC 90” to “Volvo” to “car” to “transportation means” to “movement”. Chunking down is the other way around. Examples of chunking-down questions are: “what is an example of…?” or “what specifically?” Chunking laterally means staying on the same logical level, so for example “what is another type of Volvo?” You can apply this to any of the questions mentioned above, and also again in sales, coaching and leadership. It is a great way to explore the mind of someone else, and their way of thinking. Because some people always think in more abstract terms and others always start with the details.

Finally, the questions should be listened to in silence. A great way to be silent is not to think about the following question yet. Furthermore, you must hold your tongue still in order for your self-talk to shut up (you know that everyone has voices in their head, some more than others…). Another way of maintaining great rapport and signalling that you are listening is to summarize what the person has said before you start to think about and ask the next question.

I am wondering how you can change the meaning of your thoughts right now in a way that your body is telling your subconscious that being confused is a great way to read this sentence, because it is always a doorway to new insights, and a realisation that what you want is already there and that you already know the way to the answers. You just need, that’s right…. questions!

Peter Koijen

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