The Psychology of Questions and Answers for Sales Reps
Asking effective, thought-provoking, and open-ended questions is one of the traits that distinguishes high-performing sales reps from the rest of the pack. It’s one of those key sales skills that helps salespeople uncover needs and reveal decision drivers to help their customers make the best choice for their business.
But there’s another side of the equation. When prospects and customers ask important questions, how do you provide the answers to them? How you respond to their questions is equally as important as how you ask yours.
To dive into the topic of questions, answers, and good communication, I sat down with Dr. Brian Glibkowski, professor at North Central College and CEO and Founder of Semplar Science, a PhD led consulting firm, known for applying the scientific method to business analytics to improve decision making and create real change. He is also the author of Answer Intelligence: Raise your AQ, a book that showcases how readers can not only elevate their understanding of questions and answers, but also reimagine what it means to communicate effectively.
My hope is that sales reps and sales leaders will get great value from learning about the psychological and academic aspect of questioning and answers.
The 6 Types of Answers (and Questions)
As an academic, Dr. Glibkowski researches both questions and answers, but his research is mainly focused on how answers are provided.
What he learned about how to provide answers can be applied to any field, but especially for sales reps and sales leaders who rely on questioning and answering to drive their sales process.
If you’re in a selling environment and looking to close a deal, how do you provide your answers to a customer’s questions?
Dr. Glibkowski’s research led to the discovery and organization of 6 “answer types” that anyone, personally or professionally, can use in any conversation. For sales reps, these answer types are used to respond to important client questions. They are as follows:
- Story – Success stories or anecdotal evidence.
- Metaphor – Comparisons – these are easy to say but underused in a sales context. At ASLAN, we often call these Word Pictures in the context of selling.
- Theory – Cause and effect, understanding how the world works. For example, explaining what will lead to the business outcomes that your client cares about.
- Concept – Key concepts related to your product. For example, how do you define reliability? Or when you say “innovation,” what does that really mean about your offering and for your client?
- Procedure – Steps, how you engage with the client.
- Action – Specific behaviors that your solution exhibits, features and functions.
In sales, “Story” and “Metaphor” answers are a great way to engage the emotional side of the brain when helping a customer embrace your recommendation. When making a decision, human beings use both sides of the brain, logical and emotional, left and right. Very few decisions, in life or business, are made without engaging both sides.
Mapping Questions and Answer Types
On the Raise your AQ website, you can find a graphic that maps various questions to the different answer types. The answers types align and interface with different question words. Here are a few examples:
- For “What” questions, i.e. “What is your product?”
Sales reps should provide a concept or metaphor answer.
- For “Why” questions, i.e. “Why should I buy from you?”
Sales reps should provide a theory or story answer.
- For “How” questions i.e. “How do we work with you?”
Sales reps could explain a procedure or provide an action answer.
This information gives sales reps or sales managers an idea of which answer types are the most appropriate for certain questions.
All six answer types have to be considered within the immediate context – i.e. if you’re using a case study as a story answer during the sales process with a bank, sales reps should ensure that the story provided is one about a bank.
The Application of the Psychology of Answers
Let’s dive into the application of the psychological and academic side of questions for salespeople. This information is based on a chapter of Answer Intelligence called “Sales AQ” which Dr. Glibkowski co-wrote with several experts in the field of sales.
1 – How do the six answer types apply to a value proposition?
Within the Answer Intelligence framework, a value prop should succinctly and preemptively respond to all potential prospect questions by providing all six answer types.
Dr. Glibkowski has conducted exercises with sales organizations where sales reps and leaders break down their solution’s value proposition by going around the “answer wheel” and coming up with something for each of the six answer types (a story, a metaphor, an action, a procedure, a concept, and a theory) that relates back to the value proposition.
It’s a simple exercise to help sales teams think about how to answer customer queries in the most effective way.
Here is a real world example:
Dr. Glibkowski was working with a professional services provider who provided sourcing solutions for global corporations. Their product was so sophisticated and complicated that their buyers often didn’t understand it. Using the Answer Intelligence framework, under the guidance of Dr. Glibkowski, the organization and sales teams developed a portfolio of metaphors for sales reps to more easily explain their solution to prospects.
This was only possible because the organization took a comprehensive and systematic look at all the possible answer types that could be provided, and chose the most logical, effective answer type to use in their sales process.
2 – How does Answer Intelligence apply to a virtual selling environment?
Dr. Glibkowski has also worked with sales organizations that have noticed a downturn in sales and leads with the onset of virtual selling.
Before the pandemic, sales reps may have relied on in-person relationship building, water cooler talk, and drop-ins to fuel their pipeline. But with virtual sales becoming the new norm, many companies have found that there is a great need for new ways of communication. In order to get creative and be better communicators, Dr. Glibkowski says:
“A framework like Answer Intelligence can help us rethink the basics (of conversation and communication). What are the questions, what are the answers, how do we organize our conversations to be most effective?”
OtherCenteredⓇ Questions and Answers
According to Dr. Glibkowski, his company has a simple but radical view of communication. He says,
“Communication is simply a question and answer exchange. Everything else is noise.”
There is an overlap between the missions of ASLAN (training) and Raise Your AQ (research and application), since we are both in the business of developing people.
We see this especially in the idea that conversations cannot and should not be self-serving. At ASLAN, we believe that if you are doing your job as a sales rep and being truly Other-Centered, you actually care more about the results from your customer’s perspective. You want your customer to make the best decision for their business, and your job is to help provide the information and process to help them get there.
The Discovery phase of the sales process should be conversational. Sales reps should not rely on a canned list of questions to fire off at their prospects and customers rapidly.
Dr. Glibkowski has done quite a bit of research on this subject, based on data from Gong – an organization that has analyzed millions of sales calls over the years. Through the lens of the Answer Intelligence framework, Dr. Glibkowski and his team wanted to understand the role of questions throughout the sales process.
From the top of the funnel (awareness) to education and then decision-making, each of those levels relies on a question and answer exchange.
Gong’s data has shown that sales reps who ask too many questions at the front-end (top of the funnel), tend to lose deals. He believes this is due to a mechanical approach to asking questions and providing answers.
Based on Gong’s data, it was also found that when questions and answers are balanced throughout the sales funnel, there tend to be higher win rates for sales reps. Being conversational is key.
These findings come back to the simple premise that conversations consist of a balanced exchange of questions and thoughtful answers – and sales reps really have to think about each question or answer as a strategic move.
The Art of Conversation
Think of a matrix, with the buyer on the horizontal axis and the seller on the vertical axis. Each person can either ask a question or give an answer, at any given point in the conversation. It’s important to think through each move.
Sometimes it’s more productive to ask a question, while other times it’s beneficial to provide more detail with an answer. When faced with a question, it may be better to simply respond with the answer (one of the six answer types), or by asking a clarifying question.
“Oftentimes with sales, there is a focus on question methodologies, which makes a lot of sense. But we have to also understand the answer side of the equation.” – Dr. Glibkowski
Going back to Gong’s data on sales calls and win rates, it was determined that when a sales rep is cold calling to set appointments, asking too many questions at the front end of the sales process will hinder the sale.
Prospects don’t want to answer that many questions at the beginning. You have to provide an answer, within the Answer Intelligence framework, that will stimulate interest in the prospect and lead them to ask a corresponding question.
For example, sales reps could provide a concise metaphor, or an easy to follow procedure, a key feature, an answer that will prompt a question from the other person.
At ASLAN, we call this approach an Other-Centered Position (an OCP). The goal is to provide a reason for the customer to speak with the sales rep. Open the conversation with something the customer cares about, something on their whiteboard. Give them a disruptive truth, something that will create a gap in their understanding, and follow with a benefit from your solution that can help fill that gap.
Instead of firing off questions right from the start, make a connection with your prospect first. Provide an “answer type” that will prompt them to ask a question. Get their brain working and quiet the noise. Doing this effectively will prompt your prospect to ask questions and engage with you.
The 5 High AQ Practices
Another chapter of Dr. Glibkowski’s book explores the concept of “High AQ Practices” that he and his team uncovered during their research.
One of the high AQ practices they uncovered is to “provide compliments.” Compliments reinforce an answer given. For example, if the buyer tells you a story about a pain point in their business, you could reply with, “I hear you, I get it.” But that doesn’t really do much or move the conversation along.
However, it’s very powerful if you can respond with a complimentary answer. If you can provide a metaphor that triangulates with the story the customer just told you about their pain point, the buyer will feel understood.
You could also take the “pain point” story they told and explain it in terms of cause and effect logic (a theory answer type). Now you’ve pivoted into a sophisticated, two-way conversation.
Complimentary answers are a powerful tool to create alignment and to move a conversation forward using answers.” – Dr. Glibkowski
So much of moving sales opportunities forward depends on the ability of sales reps’ to truly listen. With the example above, a sales rep can prove how intently they have been listening and demonstrate that by replying with a complimentary answer that adds immediate value for the customer and helps them feel both understood and validated.
Answers Provide Influence
There’s a thought experiment that states, “You cannot ask a question unless it starts with an answer.”
Answers provide influence.
We only ask questions because our answers are immature – because we need better answers. When you’re planning your next call or engagement with a customer, think about the answers they may have and work backwards to generate the questions you want to ask, in order to move that relationship along through a rewarding conversation.
These six answer types can be applied to any type of conversation: sales, leadership, interview, personal, and so many more.
Summing It Up with Answer Intelligence
Dr. Glibkowski’s book, Answer Intelligence: Raise your AQ, dives much further into these six answer types: story, metaphor, theory, concept, procedure, and action.
The book also identifies five High AQ practices that distinguish expert communicators. It includes real-life examples of elevated answers, featuring chapters that each cover a different form of AQ such as Sales AQ, Interview AQ, Coaching AQ, and more.
With contributions from representatives of organizations such as Salesforce, Center for Healthcare Innovation, Boston Mutual Life Insurance, as well as academics, the book provides comprehensive insight into AQ from across the professional and research spaces.
If you’re interested in reading more from Answer Intelligence: Raise your AQ, you can get your copy for 30% off here using promo code: ANSWER30.
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