Asking tough questions is consultative selling 101. But just how important are they? And is there a way to overcome a reluctance to ask them?
What consultative selling questions are hard to ask?
The consultative strategy follows the STAR questioning process: Situation, Tension, Affect and Resolve. Situation and tension questions usually involve asking questions to gauge the client’s current business situation is and uncover their pain. However, Affect questions—those that seek to uncover the cost of the problem and its personal and business implications—are tough, close-to-home questions that salespeople often shy away from asking.
Why? Sometimes it’s a simply lack of strategy and understanding of the consultative process. However, more often, the reasons are psychological. The two biggest are money weakness and need for approval.
Money weakness is a psychological condition where a salesperson is uncomfortable talking about other people’s money.
“A lot of the time it’s subconscious, because of our upbringing,” says Paul O’Donohue, Founder and Group CEO of SalesStar Global. “Salespeople with this condition struggle to the deep and important ask questions around budgets and finances and to stay in the conversation, especially if the client pushes back on budgets. They don’t know what to say.”
Need for approval afflicts 54 per cent of salespeople and those that have it typically want (need) people to like them. As a result, they worry over questions that might upset their prospects.
“Salespeople with high need for approval have a massive need to build the relationship and to sell on the personal relationship,” says Paul. “So when they get into these tougher questions that a consultative strategy requires them to ask, they fail.”
Why are these questions important?
Understanding a client’s pain points and the costs associated with them is core to the consultative strategy. Without this information, you can’t take the customer on a journey to motivate them to change their business for the better. And if it turns out you can’t, you’ve just wasted their time and yours. These questions matter.
“If you're failing to ask the tough questions, you're not really getting the full picture of what's going on in the client's business,” says Paul. “If you ask the tougher questions, you're more likely to understand the client's pain and more likely to get the emotion out of them that you need. That then helps you understand how you can win the client over on the value of your solution.”
Asking questions like “How much is this costing?” and “Is that a lot of money for you?” are critical. If your solution to your client’s problem is $100,000—a large sum to the average salesperson—some may agonise over the cost of the proposal and even cave in and discount it if the client pushes back on it. However, if you know wholeheartedly that this problem is costing your client $1 million and that it is only $100,000 to fix it, then you'll have greater conviction when you present the solution.
How can we overcome our reluctance to ask these questions?
Salespeople must realise that if they don’t ask hard questions they can’t help their client to the best of their abilities—or successfully pull off a consultative selling strategy. The good news is that a bit of self-awareness, life experience and coaching can help you overcome most psychological weaknesses in sales.
“I personally had this need for approval 12 years ago when I evaluated myself,” says Paul. “Through a lot of coaching and training, I've overcome it. But it doesn't completely go away, so you’ve got be aware of it, and be able to quickly recognise if it’s getting in the way of asking a tougher question.
“Generally speaking, the question is just tough in the salesperson’s head.”
Tip: if you’re worried about offending your client with your question, simply frame it first. Open it with something along the lines of “For us to really understand your business I need to ask you a few tough questions, is that okay?”
Where do most salespeople go wrong?
The reason why the consultative strategy works so well is because it warms the client up before launching into the more pointed questions to get the emotional reaction consultative sellers want. However, salespeople can fall into trouble if they dive in with their hard questions too soon. Like the frog in the pot, you’ve got to turn the heat up slowly, or your client will jump straight out.
“If you put the heat on the client too early, they’ll feel like you're being intrusive, or that they're being sold to,” says Paul. “You have to warm them up with a line of questioning, and create a conversation.
“With the right line of questioning, they will lead themselves to wanting to buy your solution. They’ll say: ‘How do we actually get going on this? When can you deliver this? I've had enough of this problem, how can you help me?’ That's when you know you've executed a consultative selling process really well.”
Could your business harness the power of consultative selling? Learn the basics in our free guide, Stop selling, start consulting: the power of a consultative sales strategy.