Most salespeople understand asking questions is a necessary part of selling. But when it comes to the questions themselves and how they’re posed, salespeople still fall short.
I’ve listened to thousands of sales calls in the past 20 years -- and the vast majority sound like interrogations, not interviews.
An interrogative approach harms your ability to build rapport with your prospect and lowers the quality of the information you receive. Fortunately, a simple mental shift can help you transform your interrogations into interviews.
The Difference Between an Interrogation and an Interview
If you’ve ever watched a crime show, you’re familiar with the classic interrogation scene. The police are trying to elicit specific answers from the person they’re questioning -- usually in the hopes they can convince him or her to confess.
Not only are the detectives relying on manipulative tactics, they know exactly how they’d like the conversation to unfold.
It’s obviously not an enjoyable experience for the one being interrogated. Unfortunately, salespeople regularly begin sales conversations with a similar mindset. They’re not focused on uncovering new information or fleshing out their understanding of their prospect’s situation. Instead, they’re trying to draw out a set of details that’ll help them launch into their product pitch.
For example, let’s suppose a rep who sells a retail point-of-sale (POS) solution is speaking with the owner of a hair salon. The rep believes her product is compelling mainly because it makes tracking inventory far easier.
Here’s a snippet from their conversation:
Rep: “How many physical products do you sell?”
Prospect: “Around 200 at any given time.”
Rep: “That’s more than the average salon. Do you find it difficult to monitor your stock?”
Prospect: “It’s pretty challenging.”
Rep: “You’ll really appreciate our POS then. It automatically records your inventory levels and even sends you alerts when you’re running low on specific items.”
Prospect: “I’m not sure I’m ready right now, but maybe in a year or so.”
What happened? In the salesperson’s eagerness to check the right boxes, she lost her prospect’s interest -- and the opportunity.
Here’s how the same conversation would have gone if the rep had interviewed the buyer:
Rep: “I read in your online reviews you sell haircare products. How’s that line of business going?”
Prospect: “Honestly, it’s not that great. The margins are good, but I’ve noticed that customers who buy physical products tend to spend far less on the actual service. We end up losing money.”
Rep: “Some of the other salon owners I’ve spoken to have said the same thing. Have you thought about tracking the sales of specific products so you know which ones are the most profitable and getting rid of the rest?”
Prospect: “That’s a good idea. How would you suggest tracking that?”
Rep: “Our POS solution actually does that for you automatically … ”
Asking open-ended questions and letting the prospect’s responses guide the conversation -- rather than forcing him down a path -- was the difference between winning and losing the deal. The salesperson was genuinely curious to learn more about the buyer’s business, which surfaced a compelling reason he should use her product.
The 4 Traits of Interview Questions
You might be wondering how to tell the difference between interrogating and interviewing someone. There are four trademark characteristics of an interview question.
First, it’s intelligent. That means the question is highly relevant to the prospect’s situation and the conversation. You also can’t find the answer by simply looking online.
Second, it’s intentional. While you shouldn’t ask a question that you already know the answer to (or what you hope the answer will be), you do need a reason. Maybe you’re trying to identify the prospect's biggest obstacle or highest priority. Maybe you’d like to learn more about the risks associated with change. Maybe you want to figure out which methods they’ve already tried. Just make sure you have a clear purpose -- and it’s not “Get the prospect to say they’re struggling with X problem so I can introduce my solution.”
Third, it’s interesting. If you ask obvious or vague questions, you’ll seem less credible and lose the buyer’s attention.
Fourth, it’s indirect. An interrogative question is direct, meaning it calls for a short response (“yes,” “no,” “four times a week,” “$20,000,” and so on). An interview question leaves the door open for unexpected information.
The ultimate test is observing how engaged the buyer seems. If they’re clearly tuned in, you’re interviewing them. If they’re unfocused and/or speaking less than you, you’re probably interrogating them.
Don’t enter your sales conversations with a mental checklist. If you interrogate your prospects, you’ll lose out on valuable business. Interviewing them will generate better results for everyone involved.
Originally published Feb 1, 2017 8:30:00 AM, updated June 11 2021