Do Questions Still Matter?

Erik Peterson, Executive VP Consulting, Corporate Visions, and Tim Riesterer, Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer, Corporate Visions

“Ask questions and listen; after all, you have two ears and one mouth — use them in proportion.”

Selling maxims like this are coming under serious scrutiny, and to understand why, look at the rise of insights-based selling. With an insights approach, many marketers and salespeople are wondering: where do questions fit in?

Diagnostic questions won’t disappear from sales conversations but it’s worth considering how best to use such questions to create the urgency needed to show buyers their current situation is unsafe and that it’s time to make a change.

A recent set of experiments we conducted with Dr. Zakary Tormala, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, shows that questions have a critically important role in persuasion. But, in an insights-based model, it’s all about where and when you use them.

What we wanted to find out through the study was whether there’s a difference in message effectiveness and persuasion based on whether you ask diagnostic questions before delivering an insight, or after. Is there a statistically significant difference between doing one and not the other?

Yes. Here’s how we structured the test:

305 individuals who took part in an online experiment were told the purpose of the research was to learn more about personal health behaviors regarding their intake of vitamin D.

The study described recent scientific insights about vitamin D deficiency, risks and potential solutions. The message — identical for all participants — was intended to raise awareness about vitamin D deficiency and spur changes in behavior.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of three different message conditions — different in that they varied the presence and timing of questions about participants’ vitamin D intake:

•   Insight-first condition Participants received an insights-based message about vitamin D use before being asked the following questions (both accompanied by a scale ranging from 0 (“not well at all”) to 10 (“very well”).

Question #1: Compared to other people, how well do you think you are doing getting your recommended amount of vitamin D each day?

Question #2: In more absolute terms, how well do you think you are doing getting your recommended amount of vitamin D each day?

•   Questions-first condition The second group heard the diagnostic questions first, then received the exact same insights-based message about vitamin D.

•   Insight-only condition In a third condition, recipients heard only the insights-based message and were not asked any questions.

The study revealed people reported doing far worse with their vitamin D intake when the questions came after the insight instead of before.

Expanding the 0-10 scales out to a 0-100 percent range, participants reported doing 7.2 percent worse with their vitamin D intake in the insight first condition. That means prospects are more willing to admit they’re struggling when you deliver an insight before a question, instead of following the traditional approach most often taught today.

We also wanted to test which approach was best for convincing people to do something different. To find out, the study had all participants continue to a new screen where they answered a series of questions designed to measure the persuasive power of the message.

The study showed participants in the insights-first condition produced a positive, statistically significant effect on the message’s persuasive impact. Conversely, the questions-first condition had no statistically significant impact on the insight’s persuasiveness.

The study also found asking diagnostic questions before the insight generates no more persuasive power than skipping such questions entirely.

Leading with an insight is the best way to get prospects to realize that their current situation is unsafe and that it’s time to consider change. Getting this sequence right can establish early on that you are a disruptive, change-creating seller — not just a transactional one.