Written by Steve Gielda, Principal – Ignite Selling

Top coaches in any field understand the importance of challenging the individuals on their teams, pushing them beyond what they thought they were capable of doing. A person’s best efforts often come when he is pushed outside of his comfort zone. The best coaches do not employ a one-size-fits all methodology, but rather tailor the approach according to the individuals they are trying to push. The goal is to help their team break through mental and physical barriers in order to achieve victory. In strategic opportunity planning, this often takes the form of asking questions that shake the reps’ settled ideas. So, after choosing the right targets and developing a preliminary strategy, it is time to ask really good questions.

More than one size
While working with a capital equipment manufacturer, we saw the dangers of assuming sales strategy is a one-size-fits-all plan. Lisa was one of the company’s top Sales Managers and she managed seven reps. Lisa met with her team every Monday over the phone. Lisa conducted one-on-one phone meetings with each sales rep to review the top accounts each was working on for the month. Lisa and the rep talked about an average of six to eight accounts in each call. These represented the reps’ targeted accounts.

As part of our work with this client, we shadowed Lisa during her Monday meetings. The first one was with Kevin, a solid if unspectacular performer, who usually hit his quotas. Kevin had been with the company for two years.

Lisa began by getting a list of Kevin’s top accounts. Starting at the top of the list, Lisa asked a series of questions about the account. Who was Kevin’s main Advocate? Whom else did Kevin know? Who were his Adversaries? What product was Kevin selling? Why did the customer want it? What was the revenue potential? What stage was it in? When would it close? Did Kevin need any help from her? Kevin was able to answer the questions fairly quickly and effortlessly. Lisa then went onto the next name on the list.

This Q & A process played out pretty much the same way for all of Lisa’s reps with whom she met that day. She asked virtually the same questions of each rep, and each rep supplied her with answers. We wondered if every Monday looked and sounded the same way, with the cast of characters changing ever so slightly. What we most wanted to know was how valuable was the process for the individuals involved. For Lisa, it was an all-day affair as she ploughed through information gathering 101. For the reps, it was also a time investment. We wondered about perceived return on that investment, as well as real returns, as measured by opportunities won.

In a candid moment, Lisa acknowledged that the reps resisted the Monday meetings, and she secretly loathed them. Her entire day was sucked dry, for one thing. “But I have to know what’s going on in the field because my boss is asking me. And if I don’t know what’s going on, I run the risk of being caught out if a deal turns sideways. That is not pretty when it happens. It’s much worse if we are caught with our pants down.” Like the other managers with whom she worked, Lisa also felt that her contributions, despite the reps’ less-than-enthusiastic attendance, were valuable to the team.

For our client, the most alarming part of Lisa’s revelation is that she was only one of five sales managers who conducted weekly meetings like these. Each one followed a similar process. Extrapolated out, that was quite a bit of time spent reviewing accounts. We did not doubt that the other managers shared some of Lisa’s beliefs. On the other hand, even though they didn’t enjoy spending all day in the meetings, the managers all felt they were adding value by helping the sales rep move the opportunity closer to close

Here’s where the story took a turn for the ironic. The sales teams hated the weekly meetings. The reps also seemed to chafe at both the structure of the meetings and the content. As one of the reps told us: “I hate these Monday meetings. They are almost always a waste of time. They insult my intelligence. And they do not really help me win business. Look, I am a team player, so I want to play by the rules. I work hard every day, and I think I know my customers pretty well. But the questions my manager asks me can be answered with a damn report from our CRM. Why waste my time with something our database can provide?”

While we wanted to commend our client for insisting that managers had regular and formal communication with their sales teams, we wondered if they knew how counterproductive the meetings actually were thought to be. At its simplest level, you could say this was a failure of their questioning model. Here’s what we mean. Almost everyone involved in sales performance improvement today will tell you that a question-based customer contact model is the way to sell. We have known since the days of Socrates that questions tend to be more persuasive than statements do. This question-based approach is also effective in coaching.

However, what’s occasionally missed in all the hyperbole about using questions is that not all questions are created equal (and not all of them are equally effective). In other words, contrary to what your teachers have told you, there actually are dumb questions.

Questions, questions everywhere
If our client’s sales managers had actually heard the frustration of their sales teams about their Monday meetings, there might be some ruffled feathers and hurt feelings. Doubtless there would be some self-justifying and explaining. There might even be some managerial dismissiveness (“You know sales people; they think they know it all and always feel the need to complain about something.”) But none of this settles the truth that the sales reps hated the process. We wanted to help them improve their question-based approach.

The effectiveness of a questions-based approach stems from two primary sources. The first is the process itself. When it comes to persuasion, for instance, questions allow one party to express things from his perspective, his point of view. Essentially, questions allow someone to persuade himself, which is significantly more influential than having someone else tell him. As the old saying goes: If you say it, they can doubt it. If they say it, it’s true.

The second source of the approach’s effectiveness stems from the content of the questions themselves. This is related to how questions are articulated linguistically, as well as to the information they seek. It is really in this second area where our client’s sales managers were failing.

Clearly, presenting a position paper on why and how to ask good questions is beyond the scope of this humble project. But there are some “best practices” about questions which are worth exploring here and which will help you to be more effective in coaching your sales teams.

Lisa and her sales management peers had the right intention from a process standpoint, but they went awry in the content. The first rule of good questioning is, “never ask the obvious question which you can answer on your own.” For instance, in selling it is unwise to ask a customer about their annual revenue when those numbers can be drawn from a publicly available source (like an annual report). Questions that can be answered without the input of the other party are best left un-asked. And this is where our client’s sales managers were stumbling. Their sales teams already knew the answers to these questions, or knew where those answers could be gotten. What’s worse, their managers could get the answers just as easily (query the database and produce a report).

In strategic opportunity planning, the job of the sales manager is not to play “stump the reps” but rather to challenge their assumptions and conclusions about what seems to be happening in their accounts and what they are planning to do about it. In other words, it is less “what” and more “so what.”

Planning is key
Coming up with the questions that challenge our reps’ thinking requires planning. Just like we expect our sales reps to plan their questions before a sales call, top sales managers plan their questions prior to a strategic opportunity planning meeting. And just like in a sales call, we want to ask questions that cause the person receiving the question to stop and think, to consider potential implications, and to draw inferences. Moreover, an effective questioning strategy goes deep before it goes wide. That is, effective sales managers dig deeper on an issue before moving on.

With our client, the process looked more like a perfunctory interrogation. It had a rhythm. And any rhythm repeated over time becomes monotony. An alternative approach is to listen to the answer to the first question, and follow it up with more questions.

After working with Lisa and her peers on a more effective and robust questioning approach, we again shadowed them during their Monday calls. Here is a partial transcript of how that played out between Lisa and Kevin, one of her team. Kevin, a solid performer, has just answered Lisa’s question about who the key players were in one account.

Lisa: Who do you believe is your top Advocate in this account?
Kevin: I believe its Dr. Kelley.
Lisa: What’s been said or done to make you believe Dr. Kelley is an advocate?
Kevin: He has always accepted my meetings and been forthcoming with information
Lisa: Does he provide your competitor with the same access and information?
Kevin: I’m not really sure.
Lisa: What does Dr. Kelley think about our competitor?
Kevin: I’m not really sure.
Lisa: How can we find out and be sure he is being honest with us?
Kevin: I guess I could ask him his opinion about our competitor and try to find out what he likes best and least about them.
Lisa: That would definitely be helpful. Do you know who our competitors’ advocates might be?
Kevin: Um, I’m not sure.
Lisa: How can we find out? And once we have that insight what might be your next step in neutralizing our competitor’s advocates?

The types of questions that Lisa is asking Kevin are questions that Kevin hasn’t given considerations to in the past and will help Kevin avoid any painful surprises in the end.

The key is to dig deeper on the areas where the sales manager can add value or where the rep does not know valuable information. In strategic opportunity coaching, the manager’s goal is to challenge their current thinking and fill information voids.