Question Your Questions

By Heather Baldwin

The ability to sell and the ability to ask good questions are so tightly intertwined they are practically synonymous. This is why it’s worth your time to sit back and think about the questions you ask your sales teams and prospects. When worded well, your questions have the power to achieve monumental breakthroughs in problemsolving. When they aren’t well formulated, they can misdirect and stunt thinking. "A question is much more than a question," says Luc de Brabandere, a Boston Consulting Group partner and author of The Forgotten Half of Change: Achieving Greater Creativity Through Changes in Perception (Dearborn, 2005).

Take, for instance, the founders of Southwest Airlines. When they realized the market had room for a low-fare carrier, they could have launched their brainstorming sessions with: "How do we establish a low-cost airline?" Instead, they asked: "How do we get people to fly who usually take Greyhound?" de Brabandere emphasizes, "You immediately sense that the second question is the better one. It’s more specific, it’s accessible to the senses." It also gets people thinking differently and the founders no doubt wound up with much better ideas than they would have had they asked the first question.

NASA solved a major challenge simply by reformulating this question: "How should we decelerate a spacecraft to land on the planet Mars? How do we make it strong enough that it won’t disintegrate?" Those initial questions addressed the issue of how to keep a spacecraft from crashing. But the real question was this: "How do we land it?" When they asked that question, they were no longer focused on solving a disintegration problem, de Brabandere points out. They were freed to think more creatively about the challenge of landing and came up with a "remarkably creative and counterintuitive" solution–Pathfinder, girded with airbags, would simply bounce. And that’s what happened.

So if you’re not getting the answers you need, it may simply be a matter of re-formulating the questions you’re asking. For instance, suppose you sell copiers and sales are stagnating. If a brainstorming session to answer the question, "How do we get people to buy our copiers?" didn’t produce much, try asking, "How do we get people to use hard-copy paper documents when they normally use online documents?" Or try turning things around: Asking a prospect to consider what he could do if he had more leisure time is basically the same thing as asking what he could do if he could reduce working time, but you’ll likely get very different ideas from him when you ask it one way versus the other. By the same token, "a project called ‘new computers’ will boost its chances of success de facto if it is renamed ‘getting rid of the old computers,’" says de Brabandere.

One of de Brabandere’s clients says that when someone wants to put an item on the agenda of his Monday morning meetings, they now have to do it with a question. So if they want to address the budget – they now have to consider what the specific problem is and pose the question; they have to think about it before the meeting begins. And of course the way they pose their question will have enormous impact on the input they receive. A manager telling his team, "Let’s put together next year’s budget," will likely see everyone pulling out last year’s budget as a starting point. But if he phrases his request as, "Let’s create a budget that makes us more competitive," he’s asking a question "that will elicit a far more creative reply," says de Brabandere.

So think about the answers you’re looking for from prospects and your sales team, and then think about the questions you’re asking to get there. Is there a way to ask that would be more effective? Is there a way you could turn your questions around to get your prospects thinking differently? That’s a good question.