Several years ago, I was involved in a team sale that went horribly wrong. A colleague stepped in at the last minute to cover for the primary seller, who had been caught up in travel delays.

Unfortunately, the new guy didn’t read our planning notes before the call. He asked too many “Captain Obvious” questions — sometimes repeatedly. He asked, “What keeps you up at night?” no fewer than three times during the call. Eventually, our prospect responded, “I actually sleep fine.” Needless to say, we didn’t gain a new client that day.

Sales qualifying questions are an essential element in a successful sales equation. Ask the right questions, and you can uncover whether you’re talking to a potential buyer. Ask the wrong ones, and you’re wasting everyone’s time.

What You Should Learn Through Sales Qualifying Questions

In the early stages of the sales process, you have one job: You need to figure out which prospects are worth your time and which aren’t. The answers to qualifying questions help you make better decisions about investing your precious resources. No matter how good a prospect looks on paper, or how badly you want to close the deal, remember that some leads will never become customers.

Based on the answers to strong qualifying questions, you learn how to align your products and services to match a prospect’s specific needs and priorities. Your conversation partners might not know that they need your solution, so what you ask is a careful dance of eliciting information and establishing rapport.

There’s an art to asking the right questions and asking them well. Focus your initial qualifying conversations on obtaining basic information to weed out the obviously nonqualified leads while laying the foundation for ongoing dialogue with solid prospects.

Resist the urge to jump in and lead prospects to the answers you expected. If the lead is hesitant to respond, make a note to return to that topic later. Remember, nothing shuts down a sales conversation faster than one-word answers from a lead. Ask open-ended questions, and give your potential customers room to talk. If you get a lengthy response, you’re lucky. Listen carefully — when prospects are passionate about a subject, they’re revealing insights about their needs.

The lead’s answers will also tell you whether the timing is off. You might have a potential customer who’s interested but not ready to purchase quite yet. The qualifying conversation means you can flag the prospect as a relationship to continue nurturing. With a quick pivot, you can supply support and education while preserving a future sale.

Ask These First-Rate Qualifying Questions

Ask questions to get potential customers talking so you’re able to build rapport and better understand how your solution fits. To get the conversation flowing, start with qualifying questions along these lines:

  • What is the business problem you’re trying to solve, and how will you know you have solved it?
  • Why are you taking action now?
  • What happens if you don’t do anything?
  • What is the decision-making process for your organization, including budget and key stakeholders?

Of course, there are countless other effective qualifying questions. Don’t follow a set script. Experiment with questions while you practice active listening. You’ll find the ones that resonate with clients in the industries you’re targeting. As you bring more precision to your qualifying conversations, you’ll be better equipped to optimize your time and close more sales.

The Art of Knowing What Not to Ask

Now that you know some of the best qualifying questions, it’s time to purge some of the bad questions from your arsenal. Here are four of the biggest time-wasters:

  1. Can I ask you a question? Don’t ask for permission. You’re engaging with the lead to ask him or her questions, so don’t be disingenuous. In a one-to-one situation, it can come across as a lazy or patronizing way to take control of a conversation. Savvy buyers are likely to tune out.
  2. Does this make sense? The intention behind this question is good: You’re checking to make sure the prospect is with you. But the wording is all wrong. You’re implying what you’re saying might be too complicated for the lead to understand. Intentional or not, it can come across as belittling at best and insulting at worst. Instead, check in by asking, “What do you think about that?”
  3. What keeps you up at night? Personally, this question gives me nightmares. This question has been overused for so long that it’s become a cliché. Instead of asking this sort of question, do your homework. Know the industry and your buyers well enough that you’re able to tailor questions that recognize their challenges while uncovering new information.
  4. Any question that’s answerable online. Never ask prospects something that you can easily find on their websites or LinkedIn profiles. In today’s instantly transparent world, buyers expect you to know what they’ve published and to begin the conversation accordingly.

These questions have one thing in common: They’re not precise enough to get you from qualifying to closing. Your goal is to demonstrate your understanding of the potential client’s issues and convey your value in solving them. Generic, clichéd questions won’t achieve that. What’s worse, they can damage your credibility.

Ultimately, the questions you ask should help prospects feel more confident about their own needs and solutions. Done well, qualifying questions can trigger “aha” moments for potential clients — and conversions for you.

For more business development tips read our blog: “4 Sales Insights to Help you Focus Your Next Pitch.”