Author: matt buchanan
We had a sales problem. We were getting new clients, but we were struggling to get them to pay more for our service. We would run through our standard sales pitch and then ask for their money, and they would almost always balk at the upfront cost.
To win their business, we would discount our initial costs which was decreasing our sales team’s commission and ultimately devaluing our service which in-turn created less buy-in from our clients. It was a vicious cycle that was causing us to miss targets and was demoralizing our team.
To fix it, stop talking and start listening.
In sales, the common misconception is that by saying the right thing you’ll win the deal. But what we started to realize after introducing Question-Based Selling (QBS) to our sales organization is that it’s impossible to know what to say without understanding the person and/or organization we were selling to. The idea that there is a perfect sales pitch presupposes that every prospect’s experience, challenges and hesitations are the same.
The reality is that every single prospect is different, and until you truly understand where they are coming from, it’s impossible to know what to say and when in order to build value in your product/service and gain their trust.
The Business Impact of Question-Based Selling
We service local SMBs and our average client has between 5-20 employees and a limited budget to spend on marketing. Prior to introducing QBS, we were generating an average of $266 in upfront cost for our service.
After implementing QBS, that number spiked to $1,078 and has remained above $1,000 ever since. The result for our account executives was an average increase in OTE of 60%. And for our company, we saw a dramatic decrease in new client churn because they were more invested in the success of our service.
To say that it was a transformative experience for our company would be an understatement.
How question-based selling transformed our sales engagements
Some incredible things started to happen when we made a conscious effort to stop talking and start listening. It’s impossible to capture all of our learnings in one article, but here’s 4 pivotal changes that occurred when we mastered QBS:
A mentality shift transformed us from salespeople to partners in their success
That may sound cliché but asking questions and listening intently completely transformed the interpersonal dynamics at play during our sales engagements. Our reps stopped trying to say the right salesy things to sell everybody and started earnestly asking questions to understand the unique challenges and experiences of the prospect they were talking to. In doing so, the dynamics completely shifted, we weren’t groveling salespeople, we were people that truly wanted to understand their problems to see if we could help fix them.
It leveled the playing field for our reps psychologically and empowered them to see themselves on equal footing with the prospect. That, in turn, made them more confident to ask for their business when the time was right.
Prospects began to trust us more.
As we began to adopt QBS, we had 2 mantras:
We ask because we care.
We ask because the answers matter.
Our sales efforts are primarily done by telephone. Given how much communication occurs nonverbally, we realized that we needed a way to communicate to our prospects that we cared about them and their problems and their success. Asking questions gave us that opportunity.
But the transition wasn’t easy. Initially, we had a set of questions we would ask. But when we would listen to the demos as a group, it came off as canned…it felt like a checklist the rep had to get through before talking about how awesome our product was. I’m certain it felt just as impersonal and phony to the prospect. So, we changed course.
Instead of asking certain questions, we challenged our reps to ask an open-ended question and depending on where the prospect took it, our goal was to ask 3 more probing questions specific to their initial answer. That’s when we realized the magic sauce. Just asking questions isn’t enough…but asking pointed follow-up questions a) makes perfectly clear you were paying attention to what they said and b) reinforces you actually care about what they were saying, that you want to make sure you understand what they were saying, and that you recognize the implications of what they were saying as it pertains to the specific sales engagement taking place.
Perhaps it’s a testament to how poorly other salespeople in our space ask questions and listen, but by training to become experts in asking probing questions, both in terms of the nature of the questions and the tone with which they were delivered, our prospects began to appreciate us more and trust that we wanted what was best for them. So, when it came time to ask for their business, there was a level of rapport and trust that made that easier.
We learned exactly what hurdles we had to overcome to win their business.
Trying to identify pain points from a prospect isn’t a novel concept but in practice it’s difficult to do. In our space, SMB online marketing, there is a lot of distrust. The result is often times prospects are very coy initially. When we introduced QBS, our reps would try to ask a couple of questions and would get vague non-answers and then move on. When we would do demo review, we would ask ‘What did we really learn there?’ The answer was almost always ‘nothing’. The challenge we had to overcome was to get them to put down their guard so that we could really understand what was going on. Easier said than done, but because our reps saw themselves as partners in their success, we were able to re-frame our probing questions in a way that made sense to the prospect:
If they weren’t interested in helping us understand their business/problems, then it was clear to us they weren’t serious about growing their business, so our reps wouldn’t continue to pursue the prospect.
But those that were serious would eventually let down their guard and help us understand them better. Once they did that, the magic started to happen.
First, they would start swimming in their pain. We wouldn’t just let them mention a pain point and move on. We would ask questions that had them feeling that pain. What we realized is that by triggering that emotional response, when it came time to ask for their money, they were more than ready to do so in order to stop the pain!
Second, when it came time to talk about our service, we knew exactly how to position our product. That meant differentiating ourselves from the painful experiences they had in the past and highlighting how our service was similar (but better) than pleasant experiences.
Our sales cycle accelerated
A couple of other surprising things happened when we stopped selling and started asking questions:
1. Our SDRs were able to more quickly, identify true selling opportunities while prospecting (and more importantly, eliminate non-selling opportunities more quickly). This allowed our SDRs to focus on building a better pipeline and make more focused dials to the right prospects. The results were dramatic…prior to QBS, our SDRs averaged a demo set every 71 dials. After mastering QBS, they now average a demo set every 33 dials.
2. Our AEs were able to get to Yes or No quicker, allowing them to move deals through their pipeline faster. By simply asking, they knew what hurdles they still had to overcome to win a deal. And by gaining trust/rapport with prospects that weren’t going to buy, they were more inclined to just tell us no as opposed to ghosting our reps. This meant we could focus our energies on deals more likely to close.
Is QBS right for your sales organization?
There’s a million ways to skin a cat, but in my view, if you see your product or service as genuinely helping solve a problem, not mastering QBS is a disservice to your company and your prospects. To us, QBS isn’t a sales trick. It’s a way for us to learn. By learning, we unlock the keys to helping our prospects solve their problems, and we understand how to frame our service in a way that they see value in our solution.
But implementing QBS isn’t easy, and if you aren’t willing to go the distance, you probably aren’t going to see results similar to ours. About once a month, I’ll let a vendor that prospected to me run a demo. Sometimes I have a pain point I’m genuinely hopeful they can solve, and sometimes I just want to see how the organization sells.
Almost universally they start off by asking 2 or 3 questions and then jump into their product. You can tell the rep knows they have to ask the questions and they feel bad but hey, their boss is going to get pissed if they don’t.
Often times these are large organizations that I can only assume spend massive amounts of money training their reps and improving their sales processes. And yet when it comes to asking questions in a way that helps them sell better, they’re terrible at it.
I say that to say, if you truly want to differentiate your sales efforts from your competitors, perhaps QBS is the answer?