The process of qualifying sales opportunities requires a huge amount of fact-finding. Some of these facts can be obtained through research from sources outside the prospective client’s company, but many of them will have to be gathered through the questions that you ask.

When to ask

Many sales people leave the hard questions, such as, “Who will sign the contract?” or “How will the purchase be financed?” until the end of the sales campaign. But, something changes psychologically when we near the end of the customer’s buying cycle. People get tense, the concern about risk sets in, and they start preparing to fend off any attempts you may make to try to “close” the sale.It’s actually much easier to ask those tough questions early on in the sales campaign. Somehow people are less guarded when they are in the discovery mode. They also “want something” from you. They want you to spend the time and effort to educate them on your solution, so they are often more willing to answer your questions. They also perceive your questions to be hypothetical in nature when you ask them early on, especially if you pose them in a hypothetical fashion.Make a list of all of the things that you will need to discover throughout the entire sales campaign and decide when and how you intend to obtain that information. Some of these questions are not only easier to ask early on, but should be used to determine your investment of time and effort in the opportunity, as well as how to best allocate resources.

How to ask

Let’s say, for example, you want to get an understanding of the approval process your prospective client would have to go through in order to purchase your solution.One of the best ways to pose your qualifying questions is to use the “hypothetical.”Examples:“Let’s say we go through this discovery process together, and you decide that our company is just the right fit for you. What happens then?”or“So let’s say that you love our solution, your boss loves it, and the CFO blesses the ROI Payback Analysis that we prepare. Does your CEO simply approve the expenditure, or will it need to be presented to the Board of Directors?”Another great approach is to ask your qualifying questions in an indirect fashion.Example:“I imagine that you make major buying decisions like this quite often. How did you obtain the approvals to buy the last solution of this size and scope?”One of the most powerful methods of questioning is asking a “reverse question.” This approach takes some practice, but once you get the “hang of it,” it can be one of the best ways to get the answers you need.Examples:“So once you decide on which solution is best, you don’t have to seek anyone else’s approval to execute a contract. Do you?”or“You couldn’t help me understand the process you’d have to go through to get something like this approved. Could you?”or even better, leave off the little “Could you?” tag at the end and just ask,“You wouldn’t take a minute to walk me through the approval process?”There is also a lot to be said for asking direct and pointed questions, especially when dealing with senior executives, but they should be done at the right time and in the right setting. Avoid asking tough questions of a senior executive while his or her subordinates are in the room. You may put him or her on-the-spot, especially if you are asking something they don’t know the answer to.Dealing one-on-one, most executives actually appreciate your candor if you ask direct questions that have a purpose. Avoid beating-around-the-bush when dealing with executives. Ask exactly what you want or need to know, and encourage them to do the same.Keep in mind that the answers to many of your qualifying questions change over time, and that two different people in a company may provide you with two different and conflicting answers. Sales qualification is an ongoing process that only ends momentarily when a sale is completed, and only until the follow-on campaign resumes.About the authorsSales Excellence, Inc. is a consortium of world-class sales management consultants, sales trainers, and personal coaches who help business executives and sales professionals grow their client base, increase revenue, and keep more profit. They can be reached at 1-800-524-1994 or by email at [email protected].