Every effective sales training course teaches sales professionals to ask open-ended questions. These are the questions that start with who, what, why, when, how, etc. Why are open-ended questions so universally taught?

  • They solicit great information.
  • They get the person talking.
  • They allow you and them to find out if there is an opportunity.
  • They can show your expertise, IF you ask the right questions.

All that sounds great, doesn’t it? Open-ended questions really are effective. But not 100 percent of the time. When not used correctly, they can make a needs analysis seem like an interrogation. They can be leading, forced, narrow, product focused and irrelevant. Sales pros can come off like a militant drilling questions to just get to the information they want that allows them to pitch their product!

Instead, we can demonstrate our professionalism when we use the three ‘I’ approach so that our open-ended questions include:

  1. Intent
  2. Intelligence
  3. Interest

Intent. I’ve seen sales pros launch right into a list of questions that might seem irrelevant to the prospect. The prospect thinks ‘What’s this have to do with anything?” Instead, we need to explain the intent of the line of questions so the prospect can put it in perspective and answer thoughtfully.

An example: Yesterday I received a call for someone who had something to offer. They immediately asked me “So, what are you working on?” My response? “Wow, that’s broad, in what context?” They responded, “Whatever context you choose.” Well, I was confused. I knew what this person was selling and thought, should I answer my question based on that narrow interest or is he really trying to find out more?

So, I turned it back to him and said, ‘What are you working on?” And then he responded. After 15 minutes I knew the flavor of his focus and we continued.

But why should I have had to work that hard? If I knew where the discussion was going we could have both saved time.

To share intent can sound like this: “We are going to talk about your human resource needs. What we have learned is that understanding how this fits into the overall company’s goals and objectives helps us narrow down the approach and we will be able to give you a more accurate picture of how we might help. The first questions are focused on that broader picture. Then we’ll get more specific.” Then we go into our list of questions.

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

  • Explain the intent of your line of questions and ask questions that broaden the dialogue to a bigger, more strategic discussion.
  • Focus on the solution or value desired versus just the product.
  • Wait to listen once you have asked a question. When you ask more intelligent questions the person may need to think before responding (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. The questions should be interesting to the person. How? Make the questions relevant to the situation and person. When it’s about them, it’s interesting to them. Every aspect of the sales process should be “WIIFT” focused – what’s in it for them? – and this includes your questions!

There you have the three necessary “I”s for making your needs analysis productive. With a little forethought and preparation, you will be seen as informative and not an interrogator.

Sales expert Nancy Bleeke, The SalesProInsider, helps organizations achieve higher sales while boosting profitability by hiring, training and retaining the best employees. She can be reached at 414-235-3064 or Nancy@salesproinsider.com.