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Tips for Keeping the Conversation Moving

When dealing with prospects, how can you end the silences and boost the selling?

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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

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

Asking the Right Questions

Questions asked at the right time in the right order will ensurethat 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 otherperson.
  • 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 kindwe've just examined, put an end to effective dialoging and willnot get you any closer to avoiding those uncomfortable periods ofsilence. Therefore, you should totally avoid this type ofquestioning as a means of continuing a conversation and gettingyour prospect to open up to you and your ideas. One example of aclosed-ended question might be, "You're interested inattracting new customers, right?"

The best place to use the closed-ended question is in asituation where you need to validate or confirm what you think isgoing 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 confirmfacts.

During one of those periods of dead silence, if you need to makesure you've heard the prospect correctly, you can use aclarifying question. A good clarifying question might begin withthe words, "So, if I understand you correctly, you'resaying that...". Warning: You should always preface yourclarifying question with a statement such as this and thencreatively paraphrase what you think your contact's main pointis. It's a really bad idea to parrot back what you've justheard your prospect say. That approach may be perceived ascondescending, sarcastic and disrespectful. (Ouch!)

Generally speaking, clarifying questions:

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

Typically, after you clarify with your prospect, you can thenuse a developmental question to move the dialog in a desireddirection to further understand the prospect's purpose and/orresult he or she wants to achieve.

Generally speaking, developmental questions:

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

Optionally, you can also use a directional question. Thesequestions steer the dialog to a certain direction that adevelopmental question just uncovered. Directional questions arelike a road map of your conversation and allow the dialog to takeanother path, one that's beneficial to uncovering theprospect'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 informationalexchange.
  • Can be used to replace a closed-ended question you were temptedto ask.

Important: Don't fall into the trap of using directionalquestions to control or manipulate the prospect in any way. Thiswill destroy any business rapport you've built and reduce yourchances 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 aprospect stands on any particular issue, and it can be used to giveyou more insight into someone's unique needs. Opinion questionsare also a nonthreatening way to ensure that the other person isactually 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, whichis an indirect way of getting the other person to realize that hissituation is similar to that of other people you've workedwith. As with any other reference to a third party, there is thechance your contact will respond favorably to what you cite withinthe question. On the other hand, there is a chance that the socialproof you introduce will be looked upon as competitive orirrelevant to what's being discussed. Therefore, thesequestions can be tricky.

Generally speaking, social proof questions:

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

Intelligent use of each of these question types will encourageyour prospect to begin to show his or her true feelings about thesubject under discussion and will build business rapport betweenthe two of you. And, most of all, it will add a bit of comfort foryou during the quiet times of your call.

Tony Parinello is the author of the bestselling book Selling to VITO, the Very Important TopOfficer. For additional information on his speeches and hisnewest book, CEOs Who Sell, call (800) 777-VITO or visitSelling toVITO.

The opinions expressed in this column arethose of the author, not of All answers areintended to be general in nature, without regard to specificgeographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied uponafter consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney oraccountant.

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