A Secret to Influence

Do you want to know the secret to making sales?  Build rapport and solve problems? Influence an outcome? The secret is to ask questions.

Image: Horia Varlan

Questions are research. They gather valuable information about a customer, their priorities, preferences, needs and budget.  If you know these answers, you can highlight your solution, product or service benefits aligned with the aspects that you now know are important to your customer or client. Sounds obvious? Yes, but most commonly sales people think that sales is done by talking.  It’s really done by listening.

As you ask questions you lead your conversation partner’s thinking. You are effectively framing their considerations. There are two types of questions that will help you.  Non-leading questions and leading questions. Both need to be used in natural conversation.

Non-leading questions seek to uncover the customer’s interests, true needs or drivers. Often they are open questions – what, how, where, why, when.  They foster information giving: tell me more. They encourage a customer to provide information on what they need or why they are looking for a product or service. They also help to establish connection with the customer as you show interest in understanding what matters to them. Build that empathetic relationship. You can then work together to find the best possible solution to their need or problem.

Leading questions narrow the conversation to specifics, to choices, to decisions. They often have a one-word answer. They close the sale. Yes, no; red (preferred colour); Tuesday (for delivery); credit card (for payment). The objective of these questions, from a sales or influence perspective is to secure agreement regarding the aspects or benefits of a choice. The questions may be Dorothy-Dixer’s – you know the answer – but it’s the process of affirmation. They confirm a customer’s need or the fit or benefit offered by the product.


Customer: I’m looking for a lounge suite.

Sales Staff: What style did you have in mind? (Shows interest, engages, seeks more information on preferences.)

Customer: I want something tough for the rumpus room that can be used by the kid’s friends for sleepovers.

Sales Staff: So you need a sofa bed? (Acknowledgement of need.) What do you mean by tough? (Seek more information – resist presumption.)

Customer: I mean I want it to last for years and be easy to clean.

Sales Staff: How long would you see it lasting before you need to replace it?  (Seek more information on preferences, values.)

Customer: A long time. I don’t want to be spending money on a lounge too often.

Sales Staff:  Are you looking for better quality, then? (Affirming and leading.)

Customer: I suppose so.

Sales Staff: OK, something durable, that has enough quality to last years, easy to keep looking good and that can convert to a bed. Is that what you’re after?

Customer: Yes. Exactly.

Sales Staff: These leather sofabeds offer long term value, are fantastic for maintenance and we have them in sofa beds.  What were you thinking for colour? (And so on…)

Selling ain’t telling“. Selling is influencing through listening, affirming and acknowledging needs and leading consideration of particular qualities and benefits that address those needs. And these skills can be used in many places where you need to influence an outcome.  Easy. And fun.

Saleena Ham