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Selling Tactics
Are You Asking Provocative Questions?
By Jill Konrath, President,

The other night on TV, I saw an ESPN special on the Football Hall of Fame. Just before the final commercial break, the announcer said something like, "When we get back, you'll have a chance to learn what we asked these Hall-of-Famers."

The other night on TV, I saw an ESPN special on the Football Hall of Fame. Just before the final commercial break, the announcer said something like, "When we get back, you'll have a chance to learn what we asked these Hall-of-Famers."

Then they showed clip after clip of the most famous football players ever, all shaking their heads saying things like, "Wow, that's a tough one" and "I don't have a clue." Of course, I stayed glued to the television to find out the question that elicited these incredulous responses. When the show returned, the announcer posed the question:

"If you were the captain of a football team composed only of Hall-of-Famers, who would be the first person you would pick to be on your team?"

What a great question! Every single person had to really think before they answered it. Did they want an offensive or a defensive player? Someone they'd played with or against? Perhaps even a player from an entirely different era? What qualities would they want in that first pick?

Great questions are like that. They're provocative, forcing you to look beyond the obvious, to analyze, assess and make decisions.

In selling, your ability to ask great questions is highly correlated with sales success. Great questions demonstrate your expertise and enhance your credibility. And, the best questions you can ask are highly provocative - ones your prospects can't possibly answer without seriously considering their business situation.

So how do you come up with provocative questions? First of all, it's virtually impossible to come up with them when you're in the midst of a sales call. Too many other things are going on.

Provocative questions require pre-planning and a significant investment of your time before you meet with prospective customers. To develop them, you need an in-depth understanding of your own offering from a customer's perspective.

Here's what you need to consider before developing your questions.

  1. Determine how your prospective customers are meeting their needs if they don't use your product/service. Identify the 3 to 4 most likely scenarios you encounter. These scenarios may include competitive offerings, your older systems, or even "doing nothing."

  2. Define the primary problems, difficulties and concerns prospects likely experience in each of these scenarios. State these in your prospect's words.

  3. Clarify the business implications of these problems. How do they impact productivity, time-to-market, legal issues, profitability, costs, operational efficiency, decision-making and more?

  4. Determine the value a customer gets if they replace their current methods, systems or processes with your offering.

Having a cursory understanding of your offering isn't enough. You need to "know" it at a much deeper level - and truly understand it from your customer's perspective. It's only when you've conducted this exercise that you can begin to develop provocative questions.

You see, most customers are living with a less-than-perfect system. They know it has its drawbacks but they've learned how to work around things and get by. Besides, they're much too busy to analyze every aggravation or potential problem.

Most customers have NO IDEA about the total cost of continuing to do things the "same old way." When you ask questions about the business implications or the value of change, they're provocative! They get your prospect thinking about why change is necessary - and why it's needed now.

And better yet, these provocative questions create a reason to do business with you today not in the distant future. Plus, they demonstrate your knowledge and expertise - making you an invaluable resource to your customer.

To ask provocative questions, it also helps to frame them with your knowledge of your customer's business, industry, or market trends.

For example, I work with many companies on new product launches, specifically in the hand-off of the new product from Marketing to Sales. My prospects frequently have had less-than-stellar results on previous product/service introductions.

I frame my questions with statements such as:

"In a recent study on new product launches, 75% of executives felt a poor value proposition and launch process were major factors in their lack of success."

"Based on my work on new product launches with other technology firms, the biggest thing that gets in the way of their success is how much they love their new technology."

Then I ask questions such as:

  • Are you comfortable that your value proposition is strong enough to deliver the projected sales revenue?

  • What gaps or problems do you see in your launch process?
  • What is the impact on your company if your new product/service isn't successful in the projected timeframes?

  • If the product takes an extra 3-6 months to ramp-up sales, how does this impact time-to-profitability? Lifetime profitability? Competitive inroads?

  • What benefit would it be to your company if your salespeople didn't have to create their own proposals and presentations?

Provocative questions are related to the problems you can solve and their resulting business ramifications. They're focused on critical issues facing your customer and framed with your own personal knowledge and expertise. They always get your customer thinking and they move the sale forward.

So, let me ask you a question:

Why is it that most sellers say they know it's important to ask questions on sales calls, but few take the time to plan really great, provocative ones?

Investing time developing provocative questions will have an immediate impact on your sales results. Are you willing to do what it takes to excel?

P.S. In case you're interested - Johnny Unitas was selected most often as the number one pick by the Hall-of-Famers.

Jill Konrath helps salespeople get their foot in the door and win big contracts in the corporate market. Sign up for her free e-newsletter by sending an email to . You get a free "Sales Call Planning Guide" ($19.95 value) when you subscribe.Contact Jill Konrath at (651) 429-1922 or visit

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