Q: What's the best way to keep a conversation going with a new prospect? Sometimes it seems too quiet during my sales calls, and I'm not sure how to move the conversation toward the sale.

A: Quiet is good-especially if you're the one who's not saying anything. I know the feeling, and I would agree it's darn uncomfortable to listen to your heart beat (or should I say pound) during a sales call when there is dead silence. However, there is a way to make sure that during the silence something is actually going on. What follows is a way to guide each sales call or any other conversation with your prospects and customers to ensure a comfortable pace and a profitable outcome.

Asking the Right Questions

Questions asked at the right time in the right order will ensure that during the quiet times in a sales call, your prospect is "processing" his or her thoughts and feelings about you, your ideas and your products, services and solutions.

Start with an open-ended "prompting" question. 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.

A note of caution: Closed-ended questions, unlike the kind we've just examined, put an end to effective dialoging and will not get you any closer to avoiding those uncomfortable periods of silence. Therefore, you should totally avoid this type of questioning as a means of continuing a conversation and getting your prospect to open up to you and your ideas. 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 one of those periods of dead silence, if you need to make sure you've heard the prospect correctly, you can use a clarifying question. 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. (Ouch!)

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 has 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, after 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.

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. These questions steer the dialog to a certain direction that a developmental question just uncovered. Directional questions are like a road map 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 making the sale.

Another question type you can use 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, which 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 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. Therefore, 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 the subject under discussion and will build business rapport between the two of you. And, most of all, it will add a bit of comfort for you during the quiet times of your call.

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, CEOs Who Sell, call (800) 777-VITO or visit Selling to VITO.


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.