A sales negotiation comprises different elements, such as direct and indirect communication, non-verbal communication, figures, objectives, relationships, the 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 a practical 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 study, dated June 2017, carried out by Gong.io reveals how the most efficient B2B salesmen are the ones who ask a significant number of questions during the initial phase of the sales negotiation. Indeed, a capable salesperson asks many more questions than a mediocre seller: they know the value of listening, the insights 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
Indeed, 11-14 questions are a range that can be questioned but, taking into account the daily experience of every salesperson and other analyses carried out about this subject, and 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 a meeting.
Different kinds of questions
The interesting article The Surprising Power of Questions published in HBR lists four different kinds of questions. Here is a description of them:
- Introductive questions: These are good questions to start the conversation, creating conditions for exchanging 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 asked about 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, resulting 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 supplier’s delays, and the seller will have collected important information.
- Follow-up questions: these are questions asked to gain more information about the topic of the conversation. These questions are a sign of active listening and can arise almost without previous preparation during the discussion. They are a powerful tool for a sales negotiation because they allow the interlocutors to collect information and deepen subjects and processes quicker. However, at the same time, the speakers still have their communicative wiggle room in other phases of the conversation. An example of a 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 to solve 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 the depths of the conversation.
As far as open-ended and closed-ended questions are concerned, it is necessary to study our interlocutor optimally: some people, indeed, could feel threatened by very open questions, whereas others could limit their involvement if they receive only closed-ended questions. Then, the point is to understand who is in front of us and their state of mind. Too often, in a sales negotiation, closed-ended questions have been considered risky because they can limit the answer to a “yes” or a “no.” Still, it could indeed be necessary after an initial stage of open-ended questions to specify some aspects. This is important to truly understand the interlocutor’s needs or avoid wasting time and energy with an unprofitable negotiation.
Regarding the order of the questions, it could be useful to start with more precise and specific questions and then, after a little initial shock, 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 it is necessary to start with more delicate questions 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 undoubtedly true that an initial shock can quickly change the course of a relationship, whereas a gradual growth can instead help 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. That 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 thinking 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 manage a sales negotiation oriented to a single value, maybe a single product that starts and ends the relationship between the parts, which does not necessarily entail a development or a future relationship, a more direct approach seems more efficient.
That 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 also valid for questions, the competent salesperson will have to change their attitude according to interlocutor and context and consider the variable of the previously quoted study. Questions will have to be asked with a more resolved approach to focus on more immediate success. On the contrary, if we are interested in building a more profound relationship, we need 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 regarding 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 a difference also in a sales negotiation.
Asking questions, especially during a first phone call, as indeed during a first meeting, allows us to collect information and 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 stop. It would be like two pulpits, one in front of the other, echoing their differences. That would indeed entail an exchange of messages, but it would not build the suitable 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 their time. The salesperson can also use it as an incentive or trigger to rekindle a conversation in certain situations. Sometimes, indeed, people feel they need to talk to break the silence or the embarrassment. That can help reactivate a communication that was about to stop or find another point of view to continue collecting 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 a phone call, both one-to-one and group ones, follows this rule.
Therefore, openness to the dialog, 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 a 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 character, this can create discordance and, sometimes, 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 meeting with people with different relationships, roles, and reporting lines among them. Think about how this can limit the participants during a meeting or a phone call to answer the questions.
Lastly, the group intended as a single element can also make a 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 a meeting, we must undertake a quick journey into the past until Ancient Greece. Indeed, this journey can suggest a valid ally in improving the performance of a sales negotiation. The short step into the past is called Socratic Dialog.
Socratic Dialog is a dialectic method useful to collect information and encourage the interlocutor to develop thought through questions. With this method, the conversation is organized with a series of questions asked by a speaker. At the same time, the other interlocutor looks for more profound or discordant answers to change the topic or answers with other questions that reactivate or shift the conversation.
Below is an example of Socratic Dialog applied to B2B sales negotiation. We will 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.
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. Did you think about something specific?”
A: “I was thinking about your new control machine.”
B: “Sure. Did you think 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 a few months.”
B: “I agree. Do you want to make some calculations to understand how long it would take to pay back the investment?”
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 they want to deliver. The involvement and the respect of the parts are essential values in a balanced conversation. Therefore, when looking for approval, it is fundamental to develop and train the ability to change the conversation’s pace and style.
Therefore, asking questions and listening are the first steps to encourage our interlocutor to start thinking about an idea. Only if we discuss and collect the information will we have the tools to facilitate the beginning of a relationship, which is among the most critical issues in a B2B commercial activity. Once the relationship has started, we will 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. That’s 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!
For further information on the process and the services of Vehnta, contact us through the following form.