The 3 Layers of Sales Questions and How to Use Them

Download Now: 101 Sales Qualification Questions
David Hoffeld


Lasagna. It’s a family favorite that’s full of flavors. With each layer of pasta, sauce, and cheese you uncover more deliciousness than the layer before.

Person asking layers of sales questions

But what’s all that got to do with selling to people? I’m glad you asked.

See, your prospects are a lot like lasagna. They too have layers that you as the salesperson must understand to best solve their problems.

To do this, we use a concept called layered questions. There are three distinct layers of questions that correspond with the needs your prospect has:

  • First Layer Questions
  • Second Layer Questions
  • Third Layer Questions

In this post, inspired by the book The Science of Selling, we’ll talk about what makes each layer distinct from the next, the types of questions within each layer, and how to use these questions in conjunction with each other. And just like lasagna, I’ll keep the cheesiness at an all-time high. Let's get started.

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First-Layer Sales Questions

First-layer questions are preliminary questions that initiate a conversation by revealing thoughts, facts, behaviors, and situations. They are the foundation (like lasagna noodles) used to gain a basic understanding of a subject, so they’re the best questions to use when beginning conversations with buyers.

First-layer questions often answer the questions “what?” “who?” and “when?” In general terms. You won’t get many specifics here like names, firm dates, or complete strategies. Instead you might hear about departments involved and quarterly goals or deadlines.

I’ve found that the majority of salespeople I meet focus on asking first-layer questions, but that’s a missed opportunity.

First-layer questions only expose rudimentary information — they don’t provide a thorough understanding of the buyer. This limits the salesperson’s ability to customize the experience for those buyers.

You probably have several first-layer questions that you already use. But if you need more, check out the list below.

Examples of First-Layer Sales Questions

  • 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?
  • When will your team migrate to the new product?

Second-Layer Sales Questions

After asking your first-layer questions, you should have a wealth of high-level information about your prospect’s situation. Now, it’s time to understand these big ideas in a bit more detail. It’s time to add the sauce.

I have discovered that these questions are what top salespeople ask more than any other. In fact, they are the key to asking meaningful follow-up questions.

Second-layer questions ask “why.” They encourage buyers to explain first-layer responses in more detail. These types of questions are vital because they prompt prospective customers to think through a thought, fact, behavior, or situation.

Since second-layer questions help us synthesize information, you’ll likely ask these questions without thinking much about it. Many second-layer questions simply ask customers to either assess or explain a first-level response.

Examples of Second-Level Sales 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 productivity you described?

Third-Level Sales Questions

As insightful as second-layer questions are, there is still one more level that goes even deeper. It is the most critical of all the levels of questions because it addresses buyers on an emotional and tactical level. When you leverage third-level questions, you’ll uncover information that will transform the entire sale.

Third-layer questions ask “how” and guide potential customers to their dominant buying motive -- the emotional reasons why they would purchase your product or service. Two popular buying motives are the hope for gain and the fear of loss.

Regardless of the type of sale, buyers often 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 help you understand how potential customers will benefit from investing in your product or service.

As buyers engage with your third-level questions, you’ll build rapport with them and they’ll begin to trust you — and for good reason. Third-level questions show that you’re empathetic, considerate, and helpful. These are the best questions to ask, just as cheese is the best part of lasagna.

Examples of Third-Level Sales 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 using this platform effectively, how could that increase company productivity?

The 3 Levels of Sales Questions Script

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 efficiency 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.

Ask Layered Questions to Close the Deal

Organizing the questions you ask a prospect is a lot like making lasagna. You need to layer your questions just right so that your sales positioning aligns perfectly with their needs. When you ask meaningful questions in the right order you can influence your prospect’s buying decision. By embracing the model of first-, second-, and third-level questions, you’ll better understand your potential customers and close better deals.

Editor's note: This post was originally published in November 2016 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

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