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Want Better Sales? Ask Better Questions

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The ancient Greek, Pythagoras, concluded we had a spherical earth almost a thousand years before this became accepted truth. Can you imagine, seriously imagine, where the scientific community would be today, had those years been spent on a different path for scientific discovery?

Can you imagine how many more people you could help, if you no longer had to spend time proving what you already know?

Our problem is that success leads to confidence, and confidence leads to us telling, not asking. You, me, us, I, we…all struggle with this…until we realize it’s us, not them, but us, me, you…

(Related: Wake up, Dave Ramsey: Your math is flawed)

It’s not them, it’s us.

A year or so ago, after giving a speech at an industry conference, I met the question master, Van Mueller. He was very complimentary, but he told me I had lost most of the room. I guess the disagreement was painted on my face. He said, “Mike, do you think people learn more from being taught or being told?” I might being a millennial, barely, but even I knew the correct answer. “They prefer to be taught,” I answered.

The master of questions, spun a web of open-ended questions, never holding himself out as the expert, despite the intentional subversive act of progressing my opinion of him as one (that is a compliment). He walked me through his process which was something like this:

Van Mueller: Did you go to college?

Me: Yes.

Van Mueller: Can you remember your most favorite, courses or teachers?

This led the conversation into the intimate details, memories, and stories about courses I had enjoyed most. I shared how the most entertaining courses were the ones that had the highest levels of participation and asked the most provoking questions.

Without realizing he had already made his point, the ah-ha moment illuminated, Van Mueller then asked: “Can you imagine how many people you’d help, if you were like those teachers and engaged more — sought participation — asked provoking questions? Wouldn’t you rather make it easier for people to learn what you want them to know?”

In my head, I thought, “Um…do you like getting a stray hair on your tongue (tell me that’s not annoying) …of course I’d rather make the process easier.”

Now to be clear, I wasn’t sold yet on the idea that Van Mueller was right. Our business was growing. I could count on one hand the number of clients that had left us, so, why change?

Even if you’re at the top of your craft, do you think there’s ever a point in life where you can’t get better? Alas, did you notice it? The power of questions.

I wasn’t an early adopter, I’m kind of stubborn, but Van Mueller opened my mind to the concept.

Questions not only engage the listener, but they give the listener permission to proceed. Our office had debated over and over on whether to share an obscure historical reference in the financial industry from 1981. We found the story engaged some clients, but it seemed most were happy when the story was done. They were bored.

One member of our office staff suggested that, instead of going into the story, we try this approach. (I’ll call the client “Bob.”)

Us: Bob, how familiar are you with how our industry, the financial services and insurance services industry, is regulated?”

Bob (usually): Not at all.

When we take this approach, Bob is now engaged.

He’s not only curious about why we asked, but he expects what happens next. Once, after being interrupted during the story, we tried to move on to a different subject, but Bob stopped and asked if we could go back and complete the story.

Remember, this was the story that we nearly axed because it wasn’t being received well. All we changed about our approach was asking, “Bob how familiar are you with…?”

Asking questions is difficult, because, from an early age, we’re programmed to answer questions, not pose them. Robert Langer, a professor at MIT, says, “When you’re a student, you’re judged by how well you answer questions… In life, you’re judged by how good your questions are.”

Sometimes we come to the conclusion of a question without asking the question. Even worse, sometimes we automatically eliminate our clients’ least important financial goals to prioritize the more important goals which they can accomplish. This makes sense…but, do you like being told you can’t do something? I don’t. Tell me I can’t do something, and I’m stubborn enough to try to prove you wrong. Yet I was telling clients what they couldn’t do without realizing it.

Recently, we were working with a client who had just received an inheritance. He had several goals and wishes, some of which were achievable, some of which, naturally, were not. At our plan design meeting, we broke the goals into eight separate points. I showed him how, by eliminating one goal, we could accomplish all but one. We went through the plan. He had no objections, so I thought he was fully on board. But we’ve been working together for about three years. Something didn’t seem right.

I presumptively made the conclusion that Bob understood and was okay with eliminating one goal to meet the other seven. These seven would have the biggest financial impacts, so, presumptively, I concluded that he agreed. Apparently, he did not. Then it hit me to ask, “Bob are you okay with this.” He looked at me, almost angrily, and said, “No.”

I couldn’t believe it. This was simple. Without giving personal details, I can’t share more about the goal we were eliminating, but the idea of eliminating it was a simple conclusion to reach. What’s simple to us, however, isn’t always simple to others. Thankfully, it occurred to me that, rather than focusing on the one goal we couldn’t accomplish, we should focus the seven we could.

We reviewed the seven attainable goals one at a time, skipping the one we couldn’t accomplish. For each of the goals we reviewed, we asked, “Bob is this goal important? Did I understand you on this one? Is this what you meant?”

Each time, we confirmed that Bob was on board.

From here, it would be easy to persuade Bob to give up on the one unattainable goal. We finished with questions like these:

  • Bob are there other dollars somewhere?
  • Should we give up a different goal so we can meet this one?
  • Are these seven goals the most important ones?
  • Do you see anyway to accomplish those and the last goal?
  • Are you okay with this?

Earlier, Bob wasn’t too happy about giving up on the unattainable goal. Now, Bob concluded on his own, that, for now, we should focus on the seven goals we could meet, and that, later, if things changed, we could come back to the one we had skipped. We didn’t conclude this for him. He did. He now owns the decision.

I struggle with this. I struggle with change. Don’t we all? Let me give you one last thought that someone shared with me over a decade ago. When someone gives you feedback, you can receive it and evaluate it in one of the following four ways:

  1. It’s 100% right.
  2. It’s mostly right.
  3. It’s mostly wrong.
  4. It’s 100% wrong.

If you’re constantly characterizing the feedback you receive as either the first or the last, then are you actually receiving it?

— Read 8 More Dave Ramsey Myths Debunked on ThinkAdvisor.

Michael J. Markey Jr. (Photo: MM)

Michael Jay Markey Jr. is a co-founder and owner of Legacy Financial Network and its associated companies. He has been a member of the Million Dollar Round Table member and a winner of Court of the Table and Top of the Table honors.