In sales, there are three distinct “layers” or “levels” of questions you can ask. Each level is built on the previous one, and together will guide you in creating dynamic follow-up questions.

Asking layered questions is a straightforward process. In this post, I'll explain each level and provide an example of how they can be used in conjunction with one another.

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First-Level Sales Questions

First-level questions are preliminary questions that open up a topic by revealing thoughts, facts, behaviors, and situations. They are used to gain a basic understanding of a subject, so they’re the best questions to use when beginning conversations with buyers. Furthermore, they are imperative to the success of a sale because they unveil the initial layer of a topic and allow you to dive deeper into it.

This brings up an important point about first-level questions: they are necessary, but not enough. They must be used in combination with the other levels of questions that allow you to identify the beliefs that sustain and direct a buyer’s perspective or behaviors.

Nevertheless, I have found that the majority of salespeople I meet predominantly ask first-level questions. Since these questions expose only rudimentary information, they do not give them a thorough understanding of their buyers, which will limit their ability to customize the sales process for those buyers. This will hinder sales, since any time the sale ceases to be focused on the buyer, sales effectiveness will also wane.

Most likely you already have numerous first-level questions that you use when selling. But just in case you could use more, here are some examples:

  • When will you migrate to the new software?
  • What percentage of market share do you currently have?
  • What are the requirements you have established for this project?
  • What is your process for deciding which vendor you will choose?
  • What is your budget for this project?
  • How many other providers are you considering?
  • What are your current assembly capabilities?
  • When your organization considers an investment like this, who is involved in the decision process?

Second-Level Sales Questions

Once you ask a first-level question, how do you advance to the next layer of information? You ask second-level questions, of course. I have discovered that these questions are what top salespeople ask more than any other. In fact, they are the key to asking powerful follow-up questions.

Second-level questions guide buyers in assessing and explaining first-level responses. These questions are vital because they prompt prospective customers to think through a thought, fact, behavior, or situation.

These powerful questions have been analyzed in a series of recent scientific studies. For instance, when researchers from Stanford University studied the effects of second-level questions, which they termed "elaboration questions," they found that the questions aided participants in understanding others’ viewpoints. Furthermore, the questions also prompted participants to be more receptive to someone else’s ideas, even if those ideas were contrary to their own. Other studies discovered that second-level questions help the brain process a persuasive message and even cause the presenter of the message to seem more influential.

But perhaps the most intriguing research on second-level questions occurred at Harvard University, when researchers utilized functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify how disclosing information impacts the human brain. The study revealed that answering second-level questions, which prompted participants to state their opinions, increased neural activity in the areas of the brain associated with reward and pleasure. These good feelings caused a change in the brain that naturally enhanced the participant’s emotional state. In other words, potential customers enjoy answering second-level questions.

When you begin using second-level questions, you’ll notice that the impact of your questions and the insights they generate are enhanced dramatically. This tier of questions is also linked with heightened levels of sales performance, because they guide you in obtaining an awareness of the perspectives and beliefs that are shaping buyers’ behaviors.

Since these questions are based on how the brain naturally discloses information, formulating them will seem intuitive, and when you practice them, within a short time you will begin asking them with ease. For example, just ask customers to either assess or explain a first-level response.

Here are some samples of second-level questions:

  • Why did the board decide to go in that direction?
  • Would you ever consider investing in a product that did not include this feature?
  • May I ask why you chose that vendor?
  • Is aggregating your data in this manner what you would like to do moving forward?
  • That sounds like it is very important to you. May I ask why?
  • If you could change one thing about the training your end users receive, what would it be?
  • Based on what we have discussed, does it make sense why so many companies are choosing to use our consultants?
  • Why is it important to solve this concern right away?
  • Do you believe that this issue is causing the lack of production you described?

Third-Level Sales Questions

As insightful as second-level questions are, there is still one more level that penetrates even deeper. It is the most consequential of all the levels of questions because it addresses buyers on an emotional level. And when it is leveraged, it will often reveal information that will transform the entire sale.

Third-level questions excavate the final layer of information by guiding potential customers in thinking through and verbally disclosing their dominant buying motives -- the emotional reasons why they would purchase your product or service. They are comprised of two potent behavior stimulators: the desire for gain or the fear of loss.

Regardless of the type of sale, buyers only become willing to purchase a product or service when they believe that doing so will move them closer to what they desire or further from what they fear losing. This is why third-level questions are so powerful: They provide you with an understanding of how potential customers will benefit from investing in your product or service. Armed with this knowledge, you can then clearly show them how your product or service will satisfy their dominant buying motives.

However, that’s not all third-level questions do. As buyers answer them, their feelings of trust toward you will increase. That is, the very process of disclosing their emotional responses will enhance their trust because they feel you understand them. This bond will separate you from your competitors because salespeople buyers trust are also those they will buy from.

Formulating third-level questions involves asking potential clients to reveal something they fear losing or desire to gain. Here are some examples of these potent questions:

  • If we could reduce your costs as we have discussed, how would that positively affect your company’s profitability?
  • If the problem you have described is not resolved, how will it impact your organization’s sales?
  • This seems like a very important issue to you personally. May I ask what it would mean for you and those on your team if this issue is not resolved?
  • If your end users were thoroughly trained and were using this platform effectively, how could that increase company productivity?

Using the 3 Layers of Sales Questions

Here's an example that demonstrates how first-, second-, and third-level questions work together in the context of a real sales scenario:

Salesperson: How efficient is your current equipment? [First-level question]

Buyer: It’s older equipment and not very efficient. In fact, I’ve been tasked with improving that, so any new equipment would need to make a difference in that area.

Salesperson: If you were to invest in the new equipment we’ve discussed, how would that impact efficiency levels? [Second-level question]

Buyer: Based on our conversation today, I would estimate that it should improve efficiency by around 6%.

Salesperson: How would that positively affect the business if efficiencies improved by 6 percent? [Third-level question]

Buyer: Well ... it would be a big deal. It would increase our profitability and help us fund our new growth initiatives.

The insights derived from meaningful questions are an essential part of influence. By embracing the scientifically validated model of first-, second-, and third-level questions, you will be equipped to qualify your prospects and ask questions that are aligned with how the brain instinctively reveals information. This will guide you in obtaining a full and relevant understanding of your potential customers, which will enable you to adapt your sales presentation to address their needs.

Reps who ask effective sales questions thrive, and likewise do the organizations they represent.

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from the book The Science of Selling and has been published here with permission.


sales qualification

 sales qualification

Originally published Nov 11, 2016 8:30:00 AM, updated October 30 2019


Sales Qualification