How to use questions to improve the skills of your sales team

You’re busy, it’s been a long day and another sales-person is asking for guidance or help. Is answering your sales team’s questions a good thing to do or not? And what’s the alternative?

Does it save you time to jump straight to the answer? 

Undoubtedly in that moment it does – and if you’ve been around the block more than once, the chances are (or the risk is!) you don’t even have to really tune in to offer that answer up.

So it saves on grey matter too – yours at least. However, the person doing the asking inevitably sacrifices some of their own brain cells for being in receipt of those readily-given instructions.

What does ‘telling’ create in your sales team? 

A dependency on you for the thinking or problem solving? Perhaps. 

A paralysis of action in your absence when you’re off buying tea-bags, resolving invoice queries and sorting deliveries? Almost certainly. 

A willingness to blame the owner of the instruction when something goes pear-shaped? More than likely.  And that’s YOU getting the blame, by the way.

And more broadly within your business?

In the blink of an eye it also becomes your culture. It’s not written down anywhere. Not printed onto posters on your notice board, within your sales process and definitely not in your employee handbook: but your culture nonetheless. Your salespeople learn that you’ll do the thinking and the telling if they do the asking. They learn that there’s no need to show up having considered a potential solution, because you’ll do that on their behalf. 

You’ve unintentionally become their Sales-Yoda. Maybe a touch taller, with more discreet ears, and less of the greenish hew, but offering all of the sales wisdom and answers they need. Just by asking. 

And does it save you time? No. Because over time you become the sole provider of answers, and the queue at your desk just gets longer.

Answering every question costs you. 

In all sorts of ways…

No one in your sales team will learn what’s in your head and what informed your answer…so no “thinking for yourself” will show up any time soon in your team. Unless you explain what lies behind your thinking, all they have is an instruction to execute. They gain no judgement or insight from what they receive. Which is a missed opportunity to develop them.

When we’re working with business owners and sales managers they worry about their own immediate sales team. They’ll share their concerns about how able their team are to step up and make appropriate and informed decisions about clients, trading decisions and sales processes. 

Whether that’s the challenge of developing a strategy to sustain exponential growth with a customer; or to re-ignite a stuttering performance in another. Or whether it’s about handling a complaint well, or executing sales plans with excellence and cohesion. What sits behind all of this is your sales person’s ability to think things through logically and effectively.

How do you do this differently?

Resist the temptation to provide an answer and ask questions instead. 

“What do you think?” 

Is a good place to begin. It re-directs the focus and the thinking back onto the original owner of the sales question. Gently asking further open questions like those below will then help you to understand what’s informed their thinking. This in turn allows you to help them shape the response into something that can be actioned without exposing your business or your customer to unacceptable risk. You’re coaching them instead of thinking for them.

Example questions:

  • What impact will this have on this customer?
  • What might it cause to happen in our other customers?
  • How does this fit within our sales plan?
  • How does this fit within our customer’s plan or strategy?
  • What’s the risk of doing this – for us and our customers?
  • Where else in our business might this impact?
  • What are the results you want from this?
  • How will you know you’ve achieved them?
  • What else have you considered?
  • What are the pros and cons of this?
  • If this was your own money, what would you do?

Initially it will undoubtedly take you longer to do this than offering up the immediate answer. You might also have to work harder to direct the conversation or challenge and provoke the thinking. Particularly if your sales team have got used to you as their Sales-Yoda.

But hold your nerve and persevere. Over time habits and culture will shift for the better.

Your sales team will arrive armed with idea and thoughts – your challenge then becomes one of asking great coaching questions.

Sales-Yoda quietly retires and everyone else improves their sales ability.

Are you struggling to untangle the complexities of your sales process?

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