Q: I've always equated selling with telling, and lately I've noticed that my prospects cut me off when I am giving them my pitch. What's the best way to get my point across and win the sale?

A: I would imagine that this month's question has value to all of us in sales and marketing. Let's face it: Buyers are more educated than ever before. What we sales and marketing types need to focus more on is understanding our prospect's world--and the best way I know of to do just that is to ask intelligent questions. Here's a rundown of the best questions to use and when to use them. My strong suggestion is that each and every one of us should ask a whole lot more questions and speak a whole lot less.

When interacting with a prospect, you must first seek to understand what's going on in the other person's world. Then and only then will your ideas be accepted and understood by the prospect.

The best way to do this is to set strict limits on your own "talk time." Keep it under 60 seconds. Yes, you read right: You must never, ever speak for more than 60 seconds without asking for approval to continue. This approval comes when you ask open-ended "prompting" questions. Generally speaking, these questions:

  • Cannot be answered with a simple yes or no.
  • Do not lead, control or try to manipulate the other person.
  • Enable dialoging.
  • Begin with the words "when," "what," "how," "why" or "where."
  • Require thought to be answered.
  • Encourage the other person to reveal feelings.
  • Build rapport.

The opposite of an open-ended question is a closed-ended question. Closed-ended questions, unlike the kind we've just examined, put an end to effective dialoging and will not get you any closer to a second appointment. Therefore, you should totally avoid this type of questioning as a means of getting approval to win another 60 seconds.

One example of a closed-ended question might be, "You're interested in attracting new customers, right?" The best place to use the closed-ended question is in a situation where you need to validate or confirm what you think is going on in your prospect's world. Generally speaking, closed-ended questions:

  • Are useful to give feedback during a dialog.
  • Can be used to obtain specific information and/or confirm facts.

During a dialogue, if you need to make sure that you've heard the prospect correctly, you can use what's called a clarifying question. These questions, too, can win you a fresh 60 seconds. A good clarifying question might begin with the words, "So, if I understand you correctly, you're saying that...". Warning: you should always preface your clarifying question with a statement such as this and then creatively paraphrase what you think your contact's main point is. It's a really bad idea to parrot back what you've just heard your prospect say. That approach may be perceived as condescending, sarcastic and disrespectful. Generally speaking, clarifying questions:

  • Secure the other person's approval and prove to a greater degree that you've got a good understanding of what he or she said.
  • Express in your own words what you just heard.
  • Clear up differences in the definition of words and phrases being used.
  • Clarify the meaning of "global" words (like "always" and "never").

Typically, once you clarify with your prospect, you can then use a developmental question to move the dialog in a desired direction to further understand the prospect's purpose and/or result he or she wants to achieve. These questions, too, can win you another 60 seconds of time to talk--once the contact has responded to your question, of course. Generally speaking, developmental questions:

  • Encourage the other person to elaborate on what he or she just said.
  • Begin to make it possible for the other person to show his or her true feelings about the topic at hand.
  • Obtain further definition of what's under discussion.

Optionally, you can also use a directional question to win another 60 seconds. These questions steer the dialog to a certain direction that a developmental question just uncovered. Directional questions are like a roadmap of your conversation and allow the dialog to take another path, one that's beneficial to uncovering the prospect's purpose and needs. Generally speaking, directional questions:

  • Move the dialog from one logical topic to another.
  • Invite the other person to participate in an informational exchange.
  • Can be used to replace a closed-ended question you were tempted to ask.

Important: Don't fall into the trap of using directional questions to control or manipulate the prospect in any way. This will destroy any business rapport you've built and reduce your chances of getting a second appointment.

Another question type you can use to earn another 60 seconds of talk time is called an opinion question. This kind of question is extremely helpful in revealing where a prospect stands on any particular issue, and it can be used to give you more insight into someone's unique needs. Opinion questions are also a nonthreatening way to ensure that the other person is actually engaged in the dialog. As a general rule, opinion questions:

  • Ask a direct question in a nonconfrontational way.
  • Get the other person to speak frankly and openly.
  • Allow the opportunity to share feelings.
  • Show esteem and respect for the other person.
  • Help to extend and prolong dialogues.

Finally, you can use what I call a social proof question to justify another 60 seconds of talk time. This is an indirect way of getting the other person to realize that his situation is similar to that of other people you've worked with. As with any other reference to a third party, there is the chance that your contact will respond favorably to what you cite within the question. On the other hand, there is a chance that the social proof you introduce will be looked upon as competitive or irrelevant to what's being discussed. So these questions can be tricky. Generally speaking, social proof questions:

  • Introduce a third party that is relevant to the discussion.
  • May increase confidence that you can address the purpose and needs of the other person.
  • Validate the other person's reasoning.
  • Can be used to address concerns or problems before they arise.

Intelligent use of each of these question types will encourage your prospect to begin to show his or her true feelings about whatever subject is under discussion. Build business rapport with prospects, and they'll be less likely to tune out while you're delivering your pitch.

Tony Parinello is the author of the bestselling book Selling to VITO, the Very Important Top Officer . For additional information on his speeches and his newest book, Secrets of VITO , call (800) 777-VITO or visit www.sellingtovito.com .


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.