According to Deb Calvert, author of DISCOVER Questions Get You Connected, most salespeople rely on the same three types of questions: Straightforward fact-gathering questions, objection-surfacing questions, and goal-assessment questions.
These question “flavors” can be highly valuable, but only if you combine them with other ones. Three types of questions will lead to just three types of answers -- and that means you’ll likely overlook valuable information, misdiagnose pain, make incorrect assumptions, and dig into the wrong areas.
To avoid these mistakes, incorporate the seven question categories below into your sales conversations.
The 7 Types of Sales Questions Reps Should Ask Prospects
1) Fact-Gathering Questions
Fact-gathering questions give you more insight, background, or context. Prospects can usually answer them in one or two sentences.
Although these questions are helpful for learning more about your buyer’s situation, the buyer doesn’t benefit. After all, they’re reciting information they already know.
Asking too many fact-gathering questions can also damage your credibility. Prospects expect you to research their company and industry before you call or meet with them, so try to find an answer to your question through a different channel first.
Here are three examples of fact-gathering questions:
- “How long have you been in business?”
- “What are your average monthly operating expenses?”
- “Which of your locations is most profitable?”
It’s easy to discover online your target company’s age, so avoid asking the first question. However, you probably couldn’t find the answers to the second or third questions independently.
2) Goal-Assessment Questions
Once you know your prospect’s goals, you can demonstrate how your product will help achieve them.
Use goal-assessment questions during the discovery process. Depending on your product and the buyer, it may make sense to ask about multiple objectives:
- Their personal goals (the promotion they’re angling for)
- Their functional goals (hitting a certain sales number or running X campaigns each quarter)
- Their team’s goals (working with X number of clients or decreasing overhead)
- Their department’s goals (rolling out a new product or expanding to a new market)
- Their company’s goals (raising another round of funding, opening another office, increasing customer retention, and so on)
These questions are fairly straightforward. Ask, “What are you responsible for accomplishing in the next [week/month/quarter/year]?” Alternatively, ask your prospect to describe the projects they’re currently working on and how each maps to their high-level objectives.
3) Priority Questions
A well-crafted priority question identifies the buyer’s most important objectives or challenges and is a fantastic follow-up to goal-assessment questions. Many salespeople assume they already know prospects’ priorities based on previous customers -- to their detriment.
For example, if the vast majority of small biotech startups you work with struggle to raise funding, you might take it for granted your current prospect's company is having the same issue. If you don’t probe into your prospect's high-level concerns, you could potentially base your entire strategy on a false premise.
Take a look at these sample priority questions:
- “What are you most focused on achieving this [month, quarter, year]?”
- “Define what success would look like for your [role, function, team, company].”
- “Of the [goals/challenges] we’ve discussed, which are you most eager to [achieve/solve]?”
Try to avoid asking closed-ended priority questions, which can influence your prospect’s response. For instance, it’s better to ask “How important is fixing [issue]?” rather than “Is fixing [issue] your top priority?”
4) Thought-Provoking Questions
These questions reveal new information or ideas to the buyer and reframe their existing worldview. An effective thought-provoking question reinforces the salesperson’s status as a trusted advisor.
Most thought-provoking questions begin with, “Did you know … ?”, “Have you heard … ?”, “Are you aware ... ?”, and other similar openers.
Here are a few examples:
- “Did you know [surprising statistic]?”
- “Have you considered [innovative strategy]?”
- “What was the impact of [unexpected fact] on your company’s strategy?”
5) Hypothetical Questions
To help your prospect realize the true costs of inaction, pose a hypothetical question requiring them to think about the future without your solution.
For instance, you might say:
- “What will happen if you don’t achieve [goal]?”
- “Fast-forward to [X weeks/months] from now. [Situation] hasn’t changed. Would you be concerned?”
Not all hypothetical questions need to be negative. Positive hypotheticals lead your prospect to imagine a better future (preferably, one with your product).
To craft a positive hypothetical, you must know the buyer’s specific pain points and how your product can mitigate them. Combine that knowledge with this formula to help your prospect envision a new world:
“Imagine [X weeks/months/years] from now. [Issue #1] and [issue #2] have disappeared, thanks to [product effect #1] and [product effect #2]. How do you see that impacting your [ability to do X, specific initiative, organizational success, etc.]?”
You might say, for instance:
“Imagine four months from now. Employee theft has been halved and vandalism issues have been eliminated, thanks to the motion-activated cameras we’ve installed. How do you see that impacting your revenue and ability to manage the store?”
6) Clarifying Questions
Clarifying questions let you check in with buyers and make sure you’re coming to the right conclusions. Since you’re confirming past answers rather than looking for new ones, these questions are usually closed-ended.
Ask a clarifying question after your prospect has given you a lot of information or said something unexpected.
The sample dialogue below demonstrates the value of untangling a complicated statement:
Rep: “How have you attempted to decrease claim denials?”
Prospect: “Claim denials have always been a concern, but we haven’t taken any concrete steps to cut down on the practice’s rate.”
Rep: “I want to make sure I’ve understood correctly. In the past few years, you haven’t changed your claim submission policy to avoid the risk of insurance companies rejecting them?”
Prospect: “Well, I guess we have implemented a couple changes, like … ”
7) Objection-Surfacing Questions
It can be nerve-wracking to explore the buyer’s concerns. But if you don’t get their objections out in the open, you can’t address them. If the buyer still has significant concerns by the time you close, they’re unlikely to pull the trigger.
When you sense your prospect isn’t completely comfortable or bought-in, say, “I’m sensing a little bit of hesitation. Am I off-base?” or “What reservations do you have about [detail of the product]?”
These questions will help you expose hidden objections in the final stages of the sales process:
- “Does anything about the product concern you?”
- “From 1 to 10, where 1 is ‘I never want to hear [product name] again,’ and 10 is ‘I’d like to buy immediately, what number are you?” followed by, “Why did you pick that?”
- “What are the areas you feel least comfortable with?”
- “Are you ready to move forward?”, followed by “Why not?” if they say no
Varying the questions you ask will lead you to the most accurate, productive answers. This strategy also makes your calls feel like conversations, not interrogations.