Challenge the Status Quo with Insight-Based Direct Questions

Michael Harris

When customers understand their problems, it’s easy for salespeople to lead them through discovery, because customers don’t need salespeople to shine the light of insight on visible problems. A salesperson can simply confirm the value of their product by asking generic questions. So these customers don’t need to be challenged, because they’re already sold on change (see confirm value in the Discovery Questions Template). 

Challenge the Status Quo and Create Value
But when customers don’t fully understand their problem, salespeople will not be able to confirm value with generic questions, because there is no value to confirm. The answers to the generic questions are hidden just out of sight, because the customer can’t determine the cost of unrecognized or misunderstood problems. The salesperson’s product is now a Nice-to-Have instead of a Must-Have. In these instances, salespeople must create value by challenging these customers with Insight-Based Directed Questions. 

With Insight-Based Directed Questions, salespeople are able to illuminate the problems and costs of not having their unique capability (see create value in the Discovery Questions Template). Unfortunately, most salespeople are not able to create value with directed questions, because they don’t have the customer knowledge to know where to shine the light of insight. Without a helicopter view of the customer’s world, most salespeople only see what’s directly in front of them. Hence, they lack the visibility to ask appropriate second or third follow-up questions to challenge the status quo. As a result, salespeople only help customers to become aware of superficial reasons to change, such as their current system is prone to error or lacks timeliness. Awareness of these superficial problems does little to inspire customers to change.

The top 10 percent of salespeople, however, are able to combine product and customer knowledge, and thereby achieve what I call “sales wisdom.” They know where to shine the light of insight with directed questions so that the customer is able to discover the problems and resulting costs to their operations in the absence of having the salesperson’s unique capability.

To inspire change, star performers show customers that the risks of the status quo feel’s greater than the risks of change. With directed questions, they transport the customer to the risks of the status quo within their own company. This virtually experience is powerful, because customers are not only made aware of the risks intellectually, but more important, they feel the risk in their gut. Most salespeople, however, just tell customers the risks of the status quo. This approach is weak, because the abstract risks of the status quo don’t feel real compared to the risks of change. No wonder the majority of enterprise sales opportunities end with the customer deciding to stick with the status quo and not buy (see my HBR article When to Sell with Facts and Figures, and When to Appeal to Emotions).

How to Challenge the Status Quo and Create Value
How do you get all of your salespeople to develop sales wisdom so that they can challenge the status quo and thereby create value as well as your top performers? Many might suggest that you supply your salespeople with a list of questions. This is not a good strategy, because in the heat of a sales call, you can’t expect them to remember 50-100 questions. In addition, the buyer’s responses could bounce from question 6 to 23 and then back to 3. Your salespeople will get lost in a sea of required questions, because the sequential nature of the list of questions is too inflexible to adjust to the fluidity of a business conversation.

The Story Behind the Questions
I’m aware of the challenges salespeople experience delivering questions, because I was a partner at a question-based sales methodology for 5 years. What I discovered was that the people who attended the messaging workshop to create the questions in preparation for the training were successful at solution selling. They knew the answers to the questions. They didn’t need to memorize questions, because they saw the big picture. This allowed them to easily pivot with the customer on a sales call, and walk 3-5 questions deep into the customer’s world to illuminate unrecognized value.

So if you want your salespeople to uncover unrecognized value with insight-based questions, first tell them the story behind the questions (see Discovery Questions Template). Once they see the answers to the questions in a story, they will be able to use them on the fly.

But before salespeople can build credibility by asking these types of questions, they first need to build trust by meeting the customers where they are. If a customer’s buying vision is on target, the salesperson need only confirm value with generic questions. But if it’s off target, to create value they will have to challenge the status quo by asking Directed Insight-Based Questions.

Michael Harris is CEO of sales training company Insight Demand and author of the book “Insight Selling.”