Every effective sales training course teaches sales professionals to ask their prospects open-ended questions. These are the questions that start with who, what, why, when and how.

Open-ended questions are universally taught because they:

  • Solicit great information
  • Get the person talking
  • Allow you and your prospect to find out if there is an opportunity
  • Can show your expertise, IF you ask the right questions

All that sounds great, doesn’t it?  Most of the time, open-ended questions really ARE effective, but not 100% of the time. When used incorrectly, they can make a needs analysis seem more like an interrogation – they can be leading, forced, narrow, product-focused and irrelevant. Sales pros can come off like militants drilling a suspect to get to the information they want so they can pitch their product. And this is definitely not the way to make a sale.

There is a way to demonstrate professionalism by using the 3 ‘I’s with open-ended questions:

  1. Intent
  2. Intelligence
  3. Interest

Intent. We have seen sales pros launch right into a list of questions that might seem irrelevant to the prospect, and the prospect thinks, “What does this have to do with anything?” It’s essential to explain the intent of the line of questions so the prospect can put it in perspective and answer thoughtfully.

Sharing intent can sound like this:  “We’re meeting to talk about your human resource needs. What we have learned is that understanding how HR fits into the overall company’s goals and objectives helps us give you a more accurate picture of how we can help as valuable resource for you. The first questions we’ll cover are focused on the broader picture and then we’ll get more specific into your training needs.” Once the intent is shared, we go into the list of questions with better understanding from the prospect.

Intelligence. Your questions reveal a LOT about you. Here’s how to raise your ‘perceived’ intelligence level:

  • Explain the intent of your line of questioning and ask questions that broaden the dialogue to a bigger, more strategic discussion.
  • Focus on the solution or value desired versus just the product.
  • LISTEN once you have asked a question. When you ask intelligent questions, the person may need to think before responding, and this is usually a good thing.  How long? According to research, they might need 15-25 seconds to think and respond. That’s a long time to wait, but it can pay off.

Interest. Your questions should be interesting to the person. How? Make them relevant to the situation and person. When it’s about THEM, it’s interesting TO them. Every aspect of the sales process should be focused on what’s in it for THEM – and this includes your questions!

Open-ended questions can make your needs analysis productive if you use the 3 ‘I’s to guide your line of questioning. And with a little forethought and preparation, you will be seen as informative and not an interrogator. Give it a shot and let us know what happens by commenting below.


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