Tl;dr - It's not enough to just ask questions in sales. Precisely worded questions, delivered in a practiced and softened manner, can help elicit important information to support opportunity qualification and effective sales. These don't just happen by accident. Effective questions approach topics and information obliquely to reduce resistance to answering openly and completely. Here are some random examples that I've seen work effectively in long sales cycle, complex capital equipment sales.
More Than Just Asking Questions
It's axiomatic in industrial sales that asking questions is a fundamental skill.
Often sales management doesn't go far beyond that. Yet the precise questions, and the specifc way in which they're asked, determine whether they're fruitful or just inane and annoying to the buyer.
On the one hand, each sales situation is different. On the other, there are consistent challenges that we face and it's reasonable to carefully develop questions and roleplay the exchange in order to optimize the process.
Of course, it's pretty easy to collect project specification type info. That's where most salespeople focus questions. They may add another category of "opportunity" questions that are destined to fail. "Who's the decision-maker?" and "Do you have a budget?" are common examples. In reality, neither the detail questions nor the formulaic check-the-BANT-box questions help to sell.
The important information is the collection of facts that will help you to quantify the cost of the current state and to understand the organizational and individual interests in a project succeeding - or just as importantly, failing.
The following is a collection of questions that are randomly selected as examples. In each case, I provide a suggested set-up, the question itself, and a bit of rationale for what we're hoping to collect and why you'd ask it this way. The numbers are simply for easy reference, but not an indicator of sequence for asking or even collecting the information.
Most of these are written as though you're asking the deal champion (e.g. plant manager, plant or corporate engineer, maintenance manager, etc.) but can be easily adapted to work as well with other roles and members of the buying team.
And don't underestimate the importance of how you ask - the tone, smile, delivery, loudness, etc. Great sales is artistic!
Question 1 - Why will the company buy?
Set-up: This is a great conversation. I get really excited every time someone starts talking about the technical details of a project and I love digging into those. But let me pause you for a moment. Experience tells me that without a bulletproof business justification, we're just having an energizing conversation.
Question 1: Why will your company spend the money, undertake the work and endure the disruption to buy this?
Rationale: We want to understand several things. Has the company articulated the strategically grounded imperative for why they must do the project? Do they think of a project cost in terms of these other factors beyond invoice price? (In other words, how sophisticated is their procurement? And how serious is this buying team member?)
Question 2 - What internal competition is there?
Set-up: Experience tells me that as compelling as this is from your perspective, you'll have colleagues intent on grabbing the funding that you'd use for this project to spend on their higher priority projects instead.
Question 2: Which people, departments, and projects are fighting for the same money?
Rationale: Every project has to be approved on its own merits (save money/make money) but also has to compete against every other internal project. Normally there are several times as many capital requests as are funded. Sometimes there are massive expenditures (e.g. cybersecurity, ERP system) that will simply trump others regardless of the absolute value of other projects. By knowing that, however, sales teams have the opportunity to participate in the discussion and possibly introduce finance options that can allow a project to move ahead when it's impactful even if there isn't capital.
Question 3 - Why might this project not be selected?
Set-up: I hate to be a buzzkill, but I'm getting so excited about how this could help you achieve <primary goal> that I want to make sure we're doing important contingency planning. So for the sake of argument, let's skip ahead to this time next year after capital has been allocated.
Question 2: If this project doesn't make the capital investment list, why won't it?
Rationale: We need to be closely involved in the justification and capital request. This question will serve to simultaneously establish our value in helping the deal champion work on the justification and also elicit some bits of information that can help us understand the internal competition and gather insights into the internal politics and capital committee operations.
Question 4 - Have you ever seen a project like this go sideways?
Set-up: Most companies I talk with bought a machine at some point in the past that didn't work out.
Question 2: Have you seen one happen like that here? Tell me about that. (what disruption it caused, who lost their job, how the mistake was made, was the machine poor? poor fit for application? poorly planned project? How have you adapted after that? What in this project plan reflects that?)
Rationale: Our goal is to learn why members of the buying team might resist the project itself. If there is hesitance based on previous experience, we want to learn if that means they'll opt for a known vendor, budget much higher soft costs that impact the justification, or hesitate to recommend a project if it might cause potential professional career distress.
Question 5 - How do you budget for ongoing support?
Set-up: I often hear companies discuss a planning budget factor that they use to estimate annual costs for operational support.
Question 2: What factor do you use? How does that impact decisions?
Rationale: We want to understand how they might weigh total cost of ownership and ongoing support costs. Asking outright generally doesn't provide much insight, but by asking in an oblique way and then following up with a couple more questions, we're able to understand what budgets pay for maintenance and how that may be factored in a project approval or vendor comparison.
Question 6 - How will this project disrupt production?
Set-up: I know from many past installations that there's always some unavoidable disruption to production. Scheduling at the very least - but often production planning, plumbing and electrical contractors, moving some other machines, process flow changes, and overtime planning for 2nd and 3rd operator and maintenance training.
Question 2: What current machines/processes would have to be moved to accommodate this? Who owns the budget and hassles related to that?
Rationale: What expenses are we not considering in the justification that others will and that could tip the project from yes to no? What critical customer disruption or labor relations issues could arise that would cause another department or function to work against a project that seemingly doesn't impact them?
Question 7 - Which of your colleagues will be most skeptical?
Set-up: I know from experience that one or two of your colleagues involved in this project is probably pretty skeptical of salespeople.
Question 2: Who is it on your team? Do you know what experience they might have had in the past that drives that skepticism?
Rationale: We need to understand the buying team. We need to particularly understand those who are inclined to discount our work on "principle" - and often when we're not around to observe. It also provides an opportunity to run down a list of the roles that are typically involved to help the champion visualize all the players and collect names, titles, and roles.
Question 8 - Can we compare some past justifications that have been funded with some that haven't?
Set-up: Obviously you and your team go through this process every year, but experience tells me that sometimes by looking at previous capital requests and justifications we can find some nuggets to help us optimize what we're doing this time.
Question 2: Can we sit down together and look at the last couple requests that you've submitted and compare the ones that were funded and the ones that weren't?
Rationale: We want to understand if they even have consistent formats and content to support their requests. (Hint - often not!) This gives us an opportunity to become their ally in the process, get insight into what management wants to see, and understand details of their process which they probably wouldn't volunteer in response to a simple question.
Question 9 - Are there any alternatives within the current parameters that haven't been tried?
Set-up: Let's talk about process improvements with the current equipment. What have you tried? What have you thought about but not tried? Why not?
Question 2: Won't all those possibilities have to be fully explored and exhausted before there's any capital approved?
Rationale: We are working to help the buying team button up their request and justification. We'll probably want to document what's been tried, and what's been considered but not tried, and why. This will add credence to the request, and further positions us to help the deal champion. There may also be other political or internal factors that slip out during this conversation as you follow up with "Why not?" and "What happened?"
Question 10 - Has the company ever decided to hold off on adding additional capacity?
Set-up: There's always uncertainty when it comes to adding capacity. Is this just a blip? Will demand last? Can we grow even more to justify more output? I hear companies wrestling with that when they're trying to decide. So let me ask you...
Question 2: Has the company ever turned away prospective customers? Do you remember the reason? Was it volume? Contractual? Special requirements? Was that decision celebrated later? Or regretted?
Rationale: We need to understand what might blow up when it comes time to approve capital, or even later, issue an order. Capital investment to support growth is a leap of faith and we want to get a sense of how management undertakes this sort of decision and whether they are resolute or might get cold feet.
Question 11 - Who are the people who will argue against this project and for what reasons?
Set-up: We chatted previously about competing departmental priorities, but let's get more specific and brainstorm some of the challenges and barriers that might interfere with your project.
Question 2: Can we list all the reasons various folks are going to raise for why this project shouldn't happen - in private or during group discussions? And who's likely to raise them and why they might do so? (Be ready to suggest them hypothetically, and ask who in the organization/on the buying team is likely to raise them.)
Rationale: Internal politics will play a role in which projects are approved. We need to ask in several different ways at different times to gather as much insight as possible and continue to update and revise our understanding.
Question 12 - What will go undone so that you can manage this project?
Set-up: Most engineers (or whatever role) that I work with are juggling more projects than they have time for.
Question 2: What's coming off your list and going undone because of the time you're spending on this project? Is that getting handed off to a colleague, or how will that be addressed?
Rationale: How many projects die because somebody simply doesn't have time to work on them? And how many result in frustration when someone is too busy to respond with timely information to engineering questions? This will help us gauge the individual and company commitment to the project, and understand priorities from a different angle.
Question 13 - What project jumped ahead of this one last year?
Set-up: Experience tells me that by the time a project reaches this point, it's probably been tossed around in discussions for a while - often a couple of years.
Question 2: Was this on the radar last year? What project got approved last year that should have waited until this one was complete? Why did it get pushed ahead?
Rationale: Again, this is another way to understand (perhaps better than the internal buying team) how capital allocation decisions are made and what priorities are.
Question 14 - Which departments most often get the projects they submit?
Set-up: In most companies I work with there's a pecking order for project approval. IT may get most requests funded, then sales, then marketing, and then maintenance for instance.
Question 2: Which departments stand to gain the most from this? Which departments stand to lose the most? Which departments carry the biggest stick around here and get what they want most often even if it pushes others down the list?
Rationale: If a department often finds itself losing out to others we need to understand the larger dynamic than simply the justification itself. Perhaps there are political issues, or weak departmental management. We need to understand to fully map the situation.
Question 15 - How does this help you professionally?
Set-up: Every project has some long and frustrating days. On those days it's important to understand not just why it's important for the company, but honestly, why it's important for you. You've mentioned this is getting lots of attention right now.
Question 2: If it works well as we both expect, what does that mean for you from an individual professional perspective? Bonus? Promotion?
Rationale: We want to learn how personally invested our champion (and ask the same of other buying team members) is personally in the success of the project. If they're just "doing their job" they'll likely wither quickly when internal competition for capital heats up. On the other hand, if this elevates their profile and positions them to achieve personal goals, they'll fight harder for the project.
Question 16 - Why might this project fail?
Set-up: Let's skip ahead two or three years. If for some reason this project was approved, but then failed, let's run a quick premortem and understand what went wrong.
Question 2: What would define the failure? What would be the thing that we failed to plan for or that changed and caused the failure?
Rationale: We don't want a project failure either. So let's help the company plan to avoid it - and premortems are a great tool to help do so.
Questions Designed Around Sales Process and Sales Methodology
Your questions will be different. You'll create them based on your sales methodology, to address specific sales process steps and requirements.
It may be helpful to brainstorm the barriers you encounter in collecting critical information as a starting point for brainstorming questions. It's important to develop questions to fit specific conditions. That makes it possible to plan, coach, practice, and debrief efficiently.
As your sales team develops higher-level questioning skills, they will be able to improvise a bit within the context of their own business experience. If someone is selling who has carried a P&L and made capital allocation decisions, (s)he will be able to ask questions that would be inappropriate for a recent grad in their first sales role.
But very few sales teams will excel if management doesn't consistently drive detailed technique and role-play exercises to develop effective questions.
Opportunity qualification is one of the weakest skills of most capital equipment sales teams. Sophomoric questions don't help. They annoy buyers. But great questions build credibility, harvest important information, and drive better results.