Do you ask the right questions?

August 1, 1998

Pharmaceutical Representative

Highly successful sales representatives focus on customer problems, not on products and services, according to research by Purcellville, PA-based Huthwaite Inc., a sales performance improvement company.

Highly successful sales representatives focus on customer problems, not on products and services, according to research by Purcellville, PA-based Huthwaite Inc., a sales performance improvement company.

By developing a common understanding through posing questions, a successful sales rep fosters the perception that his or her product or service is particularly valuable and unique. This positions the sales rep and his or her organization in the forefront of the customer's mind.

Successful sales reps accomplish this by asking the right kinds of questions.

Be inquisitive

Asking questions tends to persuade, while making statements tends not to persuade. How successful you are at doing the former can be measured by asking one simple question: Who is doing the talking?

In successful sales situations, customers talk more. They reveal needs for which the sales rep has a solution. Simply put, across several industries, successful salespeople uncover and develop their customers' needs by asking the following effective types of questions: situation questions, problem questions, implication questions and need-payoff questions.

Situation questions. Situation questions are neutral questions about facts. They establish a mutual understanding of the customer's present situation.

Typically used as an opening question, you might ask a physician, "Have you seen a growing patient concern due to recent publicity on heart disease?" Your purpose in asking this situation question is to collect data on what the customer is doing right now.

Who benefits from situation questions - you or the physician? Potentially, both parties can benefit, but generally you are the primary beneficiary. The physician is educating you in the hope that the knowledge you are gaining will enable you to add value later. However, research evidence suggests that most people ask too many situation questions early in discussions. Customers are more prepared to answer detailed situation questions later in discussions, when it is clear that you are able to contribute something of value.

Problem questions. Problem questions ask about a customer's difficulties and dissatisfactions.

Imagine you know the essential details of a customer's situation. Where can you lead the discussion? A customer who is genuinely satisfied with the way things are at present has no reason to take the discussion further. Customers must perceive a problem or a source of dissatisfaction in order to proceed.

Problem questions explore customers' perceptions of problems. For example, you might ask a physician, "What sort of dissatisfactions do you have with your current drug treatments for heart disease?"

Implication questions. Implication questions query about the effects, impact or consequences of a customer's difficulties and dissatisfactions.

Use implication questions to uncover whether you and your customer have a common understanding of a problem's seriousness. For example, you might ask a physician, "Does this increase in side effects reduce the ability to effectively treat your patients due to poor compliance or a need to withdraw therapy?" Or, more simply, you might ask, "What sort of consequences does that lead to?"

Implication questions explore the effects or consequences of problems. They create a shared understanding of a problem's severity and, by doing so, increase the value the customer perceives from solving the problem.

According to Huthwaite's research, implication questions are the most powerful of all selling behaviors. Highly successful salespeople in many industries use implication questions more often and more consistently than their less successful counterparts. What's more, customers give those salespeople positive ratings for professionalism, candor and competence for asking implication questions.

Need-payoff questions. Need-payoff questions are questions about the value and implications of a solution to a customer's problems.

Unlike the previous three types of questions, need-payoff questions are not concerned with defining the extent of a problem. When you start asking need-payoff questions, you are turning your attention to finding a solution. You are trying to uncover how the customer benefits from solving the problem.

Traditionally, we have been taught that this is the point in the sale where, having defined the problem, you explain the benefit of the solution you can offer. You make statements such as, "One benefit of this new drug is that side effects are reduced, so patients are more likely to comply."

In a professional relationship, however, there is a danger in telling customers about the benefits they might get from your approach. If you're not careful, you may sound as though you are "selling" your solution. If you asked a need-payoff question, you might say, "If side effects were reduced, what benefits would that have for your patients? What benefits would that have for you?"

Need-payoff questions explore the utility or value of a particular solution. In doing so they encourage the customer to tell you the benefits of a proposed approach. They also check whether the customer's expectations are realistic, and allow you to explore the benefits without seeming to "sell" your solution. PR