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Combining a Directive Statement with Good Open-Ended Questions

Customer conversations

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The three strongest words to begin good open-ended questions are what, why and how. I discussed this in my previous post: Generate Deeper Sales Dialogues with Strong Open-ended Questions.

Directive Statements

Now, I want to share another tool to help you develop your questioning strategy — directive statements. These are statements that don’t end in a question mark, yet they draw the buyer into sharing more information with you. Try mixing these directive statements with good open-ended questions to get your buyer talking.

  1. Tell me about

    “Tell me about your decision-making process.”

    “Tell me about your top two concerns when it comes to X.”

  2. Please describe

    “Please describe the rationale for putting this out to bid this year.”

    “Please describe the different criteria that you will measure this decision against.”

  3. Share with me

    “Share with me what you’re looking for in a financial adviser.”

    “Share with me management’s top initiatives for this year.”

  4. Help me understand

    “Help me understand why you are shopping the business around at this point in time.”

    “Help me understand the two biggest issues that are preventing you from moving this forward.”

Pitfalls of Using Directive Statements

There is one nuance to this approach. Make sure not to sabotage these directive statements.

It is: “Tell me about …”

Not: “Could you tell me about …”

It is: “Please describe …”

Not: “Will you please describe …”

It is: “Share with me …”

Not: “Would you share with me …”

It is: “Help me understand …”

Not: “Can you help me understand …”

When you add “would,” “will,” “could” or “can” to directive statements, you give the buyer an out. Instead of addressing the substance question, they can choose to close you down. “Will I? No, I will not …”

Granted, buyers might still reply with additional information, but if they want to be tight-lipped, they have an easy way out. So, present a clear directive statement or good open-ended questions that encourages the buyer to elaborate. Avoid adding closed-ended words.

One of the points that I make in consultative selling training sessions is that asking closed-ended questions or adding closed-ended words is not the worst thing that sales professionals can do. But, they are bad habits that need to be broken, and doing so allows them to thoughtfully and strategically ask better open-ended questions. Most of the time when sales professionals say, “The prospect would not open up,” or, “I could not get any information,” I suspect the problem at least 50% of the time is because they’re asking a closed-ended question and not good open-ended questions.

Often, they’re not even aware of the construction of their questions. They become so focused on getting the information that they need or trying to support a pre-formed conclusion that they go into fact-finding mode rather than opening a discussion. I find this with sales professionals of all tenures, from new hires to veterans.

They say things like: Have you thought about this? Did you try this? Did you do that? Wouldn’t it be better if …? Wouldn’t you agree if …? They fire off closed-ended questions, not giving the buyer a chance to really open up and talk. Then, the questions begin to feel like an interrogation, and the buyer shuts down.

Try interspersing directive statements with what/why/how questions to encourage buyers to do most of the talking. The more they talk, the more they will feel listened to, understood and willing to enter into a dialogue that sets the stage for building a mutually beneficial relationship.

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