A sales negotiation is composed of different elements, such as direct and indirect communication, non-verbal communication, figures, objectives, relationships, balance of power and timing. It is a heterogeneous mix of experience and competence that involves all the previously listed subjects.

Analyzing all these elements in a single post would not be an advantageous choice because of the multiple variables of the system. For this reason in this article we will only focus on an aspect of the verbal communication that characterizes a sales negotiation: the role of questions.


The role of questions in a sales negotiation

An interesting research dated June 2017 carried out by Gong.io reveals how most efficient B2B salesmen are the ones able to ask a great number of questions during the initial phase of the sales negotiation. Indeed, a capable salesperson asks many more questions compared to a mediocre seller: he or she knows very well the value of listening, the insights that can be collected and the communicative hints that the target could give during the first conversations.

Gong.io’s study not only confirms this fact but, after having examined beyond 500.000 conversations oriented towards B2B sale, it also defines the optimal number of questions to ask during an initial conversation. According to Gong.io the ideal number of questions is between 11 and 14. Here you can find the full article with all the data: 4 Tips For Nailing Your Sales Discovery Calls

Certainly, 11-14 questions is a range that can be questioned but, taking into account the daily experience of every salesperson and other analyses carried out about this subject, it is undeniable that the role of questions in a sales negotiation is a key role.

However, before deeply reflecting on how questions can help in a conversation it is necessary to take a step back and define some aspects that characterize the questions and their interactions in a phone call or in a meeting.


Different kinds of questions

The interesting article The Surprising Power of Questions published in HBR lists four different kinds of questions. Here a description of them:

  • Introductive questions: these are questions that are useful to start the conversation, which create the conditions for an exchange of information thus facilitating the relationship between the interlocutors. An example of an introductive question is the usual “How are you?”
  • Symmetrical questions: these are questions that are asked in reference to a previous request. They can be used for different purposes and allow the speakers to establish a balanced connection. An example of symmetrical questions following the previous example is “I am fine. How are you?”
  • Topic change questions: these are questions that have the effect of completely changing the topic of the conversation. They can make a talk more profound or lighter and they can result in a change of pace of the dialog. An example of topic change questions, at a commercial level, is “Our supplier has some problems related to delivery times” “But is your scrap rate under control?”. In this case the question emphasizes one of the potential causes of the delays of the supplier and the seller will have collected important information.
  • Follow-up questions: these are questions that are asked to gain more information about the topic of the conversation. These questions are a sign of active listening and can rise during the discussion almost without previous preparation. They are a powerful tool for a sales negotiation because they allow the interlocutors to collect information and deepen subjects and processes in quicker times, but at the same time the speakers still have their communicative wiggle room in other phases of the conversation. An example of follow-up question is “Our scrap rate is certainly an average level for our sector” “And of what percentage are we talking about?”. As in the first case, this information would greatly facilitate the salesperson when preparing the offer for a solution to the problem.


Open-ended or closed-ended questions? And in what order?

Once we have defined the different kinds of questions it is interesting to examine the impact of open-ended or closed-ended questions and their chronological order in terms of depths of the conversation.

As far as open-ended and closed-ended questions are concerned, it is necessary to optimally study our own interlocutor: some people, indeed, could feel threatened by very open questions whereas others could limit their involvement if they are asked only closed-ended questions. Then, the point is to understand who is in front of us and his or her state of mind. Too often in a sales negotiation closed-ended questions have been considered risky questions, because they can limit the answer to a “yes” or a “no”, but it is surely true that after an initial stage of open-ended questions it could be necessary to specify some aspects. This is important in order to truly understand the needs of the interlocutor or to avoid wasting time and energy with an unprofitable negotiation.

As regards the order of the questions it could be useful to start with more precise and specific questions and then, after a little initial shock, to open the way for a more sincere conversation: switching then from a first deeper question to lighter ones. On the contrary, there are also cases where is it necessary to start with lighter questions in order to proceed step by step to more profound questions. Both these tactics can be used alternately according to the context and the interlocutor. It is certainly true that an initial shock can quickly change the course of a relationship, whereas a gradual growth can instead help to build a relationship that has started with the right approach.


What is the correct attitude to ask questions?

Communication can be verbal or non-verbal. This is surely valid also for questions and therefore the attitude chosen to ask questions is a crucial variable of the negotiation.

Usually, we are used to think that, in general during a negotiation, a more friendly approach is to be preferred. However, according to an article published in HBR and entitled Being Nice in a Negotiation Can Backfire, this is not always true. Indeed, when we are managing a sales negotiation oriented to a single value, maybe a single product that starts and ends the relationship between the parts, which therefore does not necessarily entails a development or a future relationship, a more direct approach seems more efficient.

This is an interesting idea according to which in some situations the relationship has to be preferred, whereas in other situations we have to focus on the specific result.
Imagining that this is valid also for questions, the competent salesperson will have to change his or her attitude according to interlocutor and context, but also taking into consideration the variable of the previously quoted study. Questions will then have to be asked with a more resolved approach if we focus on a more immediate success, on the contrary if we are interested in building a more profound relationship, we will have to be friendlier.


Silence and questions

Once we have defined the main features of the questions we believe it is useful to underline the listening aspect with reference to the asked questions. It is said that Leonardo da Vinci has affirmed that “Being able to listen means to own, in addition to our brain, also that of others“. We believe that this can make the difference also in a sales negotiation.

Asking questions, especially during a first phone call, as surely during a first meeting, allows us not only to collect information, but also to start reasoning together on needs or critical issues. If you think of a conversation made only of statements, you can see how, without questions, the dialog would be stopped. It would be like two pulpits one in front of the other echoing with their differences. This would surely entail an exchange of messages, but it would not result in the building of the right bridges for communication that ease a relationship.

Silence thus becomes the activity that necessarily needs to follow a question. Silence is also a tool that allows the interlocutor to take his or her times and, in certain situations, can also be used by the salesperson as incentive or trigger to rekindle a conversation. Sometimes, indeed, people feel they need to talk to break the silence or the embarrassment. This can help to reactivate a communication that was about to stop or to find another point of view to continue with the collection of information.

Therefore, silence alternated with questions becomes a weapon in the hands of a capable seller: both in terms of listening, and consequently collection of information, and as a tool able to reactivate a conversation.


One-to-one or group meeting

As you can easily imagine every conversation changes according to the context: also the effect of questions, if asked in a meeting or in a phone call, both one-to-one and group ones, follows this rule.

Openness to dialog, therefore to questions and especially to answers, is affected by different factors. Among the most significant ones we list the personalities inside the group, the relationships among the participants and the group intended as single element that has a history and an experience as an entity.

Indeed, personalities inside the group can change the effect and the openness to questions. If only one person differs from the average personality of a group, this can be sufficient to create discordance and, sometimes, to stop the whole group. Think of a group of people with an open attitude that, finding themselves in a meeting with a more closed person, should openly say what they are thinking. Fear of consequences, especially if the closed person is the most powerful in that context, could stop the entire group.

The relationships among participants can limit the conversation, too. It is not that rare to find ourselves in a meeting with people that have different relationships, roles and reporting lines among them. Think about how all of this can limit the participants during a meeting or a phone call in their answers to the questions.

Lastly, also the group intended as single element can make the difference. Freedom of talking, truthfulness and depth of answers will indeed be different if the group is at the first meeting or, on the contrary, after years of collaboration.


From questions to the idea

Now that we have defined the main aspects that characterize questions in a phone call or in a meeting, it is necessary to undertake a quick journey into the past until Ancient Greece. Indeed, this journey can suggest a valid ally in the improvement of the performance of a sales negotiation. The quick step into the past is called Socratic Dialog.

Socratic Dialog is a dialectic method useful to collect information and to encourage the interlocutor to develop a thought through questions. With this method the conversation is organized with a series of questions asked by a speaker while, the other interlocutor, looks for answers that are more profound or discordant, as to change the topic, or answers with other questions that reactivate or change the conversation.

Below an example of Socratic Dialog applied to B2B sales negotiation. We will put into practice the previously stated theories through an imaginary conversation between a buyer (A) and a salesperson (B). Clearly, in reality this dialog would not be that easy. However, this example is helpful to show the power of questions in a sales negotiation.

A: “Hi”

B: “Hi, how are you?”

A: “I am fine. Thanks. How are you?”

B: “Good. Do you remember the email I sent you?”

A: “Yes, I do. You know we have to face some critical issues. Our supplier has some problems with delivery times”

B: “But is your scrap rate under control?”

A: “Our scrap rate is certainly an average level for our sector”

B: “And of what percentage are we talking about?”

A: “It is 3,6%”

B: “Is this value satisfying for you?”

A: “No, it isn’t.”

B: “Therefore, do you think we could be of use to you with our machines?”

A: “I believe your technology could be one of the solutions we could implement to improve our performance”

B: “I understand. We can offer very advanced solutions. Were you thinking about something specific?”

A: “I was thinking about your new control machine”

B: “Sure. Were you thinking about M1 or M2?”

A: “I’m torn. Then, in general, I am a bit worried about the price”


A: “It is certainly true that just by reducing scraps we could have resources able to cover the cost of an advanced machine in few months”

B: “I agree. Do you want to make some calculations to understand how long it would take to pay back the investment?”

A: “Okay”


In summary

Undoubtedly, during a sales negotiation it is not cautious to press our interlocutor with a barrage of questions. However, a skilled salesperson is able to alternate questions with silence and messages that he or she wants to deliver. The involvement and the respect of the parts are essential values in a balanced conversation. Therefore, when we are looking for approval it is fundamental to develop and train the ability of changing the pace and the style of the conversation.

Asking questions and listening are therefore the first steps to encourage our interlocutor to start thinking about an idea. Only if we discuss and collect information we will be able to have the tools to facilitate the start of a relationship, which in a B2B commercial activity is among the most important issues. Once the relationship has started, we will then have to develop an idea together and then this shared idea could become a shared business.

Here in Vehnta we are well aware that B2B negotiations are a complex topic. This is why we try to facilitate the work of our customers by selecting, preparing and qualifying their prospects so that, once the meeting is organized, the salesmen of our clients can focus only on closing the deal: by asking questions and, in the first place, listening!


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