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Questioning Skills and Global Cultures

I have worked with Richardson Sales Performance for more than a decade. I was first based in Brussels, working across multiple industries and cultures in Europe. Now, I’m in Australia, working with a broad range of clients across the Asia-Pacific region.

As a facilitator, I take a high-energy approach in the classroom, encouraging debate, discussion, and a sharing of experience that is respectful of different cultural perspectives.

Questioning skills take on another layer of complexity in Asia because you need to ask fairly direct questions but in a gentler, less aggressive manner than is typical in the US or European markets.

In Asia, you might have to ask the same questions several times, in different ways, to get the response that you need. Sometimes, it takes circling back to a particular question later in the meeting or in a future meeting after the client has become a little more comfortable with you.

During first meetings, I find clients in Asia to be more conservative initially. That’s when questioning skills in prefacing, trading, and pacing become really important.

With pacing, for example, clients need time to think through and consider their response to questions. So, maybe you ask a question, then sip your water or coffee to provide a pause, and then let them know that you’re expecting a response, in a respectful manner. It’s also important to respect the fact that, if you’re conducting business in English, clients may have to translate the conversation into their first language. So, make sure that your questions are succinct and to the point and avoid barraging clients with a series of questions at once.

I often see salespeople ask a question and then keep talking. My advice is to finish the question with the actual question. If you don’t, by the time that you finish, the client may forget what it is you asked in the first place. This is especially important in Asia or any environment where people are working in a second language.

Salespeople should also be aware that in some cultures in Asia, yes might mean yes, no, maybe, or let’s keep talking. Some clients won’t voice objections as a point of respect. Some clients find it difficult to give feedback whether you’re right or wrong. In some countries, clients can be less direct or more difficult to read. You can never confuse polite positivity with agreement to do business. What this all means is that salespeople need to use their checking skills to elicit as much feedback as possible.

One other tip that I’ll share applies to any country or culture. Cater your questions to your audience. Think about which management lens they look through. If you’re dealing with senior executives, don’t focus on implementation and granular details. If you’re talking to the CEO, be more strategic; ask about growth plans over the next few years. If you’re talking to the head of marketing, you might ask about branding and reputation. And, for the CFO, financial goals and initiatives.

Think about whom you’re talking to and what’s relevant for their role in the organization. There’s no point in asking a junior person about strategy if they have no idea what it is. By tailoring your questions to the right level, you build better relationships and learn more of what you need to know.

The key to doing business in Asia, as in other geographic regions, is to get to know the clients, build relationships, and be perceptive and respectful of cultural differences.

About the Author

Diane Lamont has worked with Richardson for over seven years, both in Europe and in Asia. Diane brings more than 20 years of training and sales management experience to her role as the leader of the company’s business efforts in the region.As a facilitator, she takes a high-energy approach in the classroom, encouraging debate, discussion, and a sharing of experience. As a senior facilitator with Richardson, Diane has delivered the entire range of Richardson customized programs, from Consultative Selling to High Performance Selling, across a variety of industries, from banking and professional services, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, technology and telecoms, through to media and manufacturing.

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