I first got introduced to the power of questions when I attended Huthwaite’s SPIN® Selling course over 20 years ago. It left an indelible mark on me. But 20 years on, half of which I’ve spent working for Huthwaite, I have a different view. I recognise now that it’s not the POWER of questions that is important. It is the PURPOSE of questions. Why are we asking them? They are after all, an incredibly important strategic tool in our verbal arsenal. But most of us don’t seem to have a clue as to how to use this tool effectively.
This article was prompted by reading an Harvard Business Review (HBR) article on the power of questions. I want to respond to it by taking you through a whirlwind tour of 50 years of question research. It all started with Neil Rackham using his verbal behavioural analysis technique back in the 1960’s. Decades down the line yours truly and others are still adding to this bank of research and refining it.
What I want to focus on is not just the type of question but also the purpose of questions. Why would you strategically choose one question type in a particular situation over another? The verbal behavioural analysis technique invented by Rackham and implemented by Huthwaite classifies questions according to their content; i.e. what is the question trying to achieve? It is this classification of question type that I believe is the most useful and valuable output of verbal behavioural analysis research. But we also need to go further than just recognising what types of question work best in particular situations. It is also important to understand WHY these questions are important. So let’s have a look at the key lessons that 50 years of question research can tell us.
The purpose of SPIN®
I’ve heard people describe SPIN® as a questioning model. Indeed, my key learning from my first experience of it was that I needed to ask questions. But what people don’t realise is that the SPIN® research team did not identify the importance of questions first. What they noticed first was the importance of sellers uncovering problems (Implied Needs) and what the customer wanted in terms of a solution (Explicit Needs). Then they saw how much more successful sellers were when they MATCHED the customer’s Explicit Needs to what THEY were offering. So the SPIN® Benefit statement was born.
The research team created the SPIN® questioning model as a strategy to help sellers make powerful Benefit statements. Problem and Implication Questions uncover and develop the problems (Implied Needs). Need-Payoff Questions turn the problems into customer wants for a solution. So the SPIN® model has a clear PURPOSE. That is the power of the model. If you lose sight of the purpose then you end up asking lots of questions that can potentially just irritate the customer. The most important behaviours in SPIN® are not the questions, but the answers from the customer that you are listening for. Plus the Benefit statement, which is how you turn those customer answers into something that builds value for you – the seller. So the Listening behaviours are more important than the Questioning behaviours.
Open versus Closed
A lot of question researchers (the HBR article included) focus on the difference between Open and Closed. A well-loved story often told in Huthwaite is of Neil Rackham climbing on a podium sometime in the 1970s to tell the audience that successful sellers didn’t ask more Open questions than unsuccessful sellers. It led to uproar, as Open questions were a favoured sales technique at the time. The research had also indicated that just because you ask an Open or Closed Question doesn’t mean that you will get an Open or a Closed answer. So the Huthwaite insight was that successful sellers used a mixture of Open and Closed questions. What was more important was the content of the question; i.e. what it was trying to do.
At this point I’d like to go back and clarify those initial research findings. When you look at the ratio of Open to Closed questions for both successful and unsuccessful sellers they are broadly the same. What is striking is that in both cases the ratio of Closed to Open questions is about 4:1. So neither were asking a lot of Open questions.
Over the years when I’ve analysed both sales and customer service conversations I’ve looked for Open and Closed questions. I always find the same; people rarely use Open questions. This also happens when I am training people in the Huthwaite SPIN® or PITCH models. When you ask people to give you Problem Questions invariably they offer Closed examples. Hardly any salesperson suggests something like: “What challenges are you facing at the moment?” They are much more likely to ask a Problem Question that is designed to uncover whether a customer has a particular problem (which is one the salesperson is well placed to deal with).
The value of Closed Questions
The directional nature of Closed Questions is probably why they are so popular. I once had a sales manager say to me: “I’m only interested in finding out about the problems that I can solve.” This might seem rational and logical to many people. After all, why would you want to waste time finding out about problems that you can’t do anything about? That’s not going to help you win the sale. I would also suggest that unless you can see the problem that you are trying to solve within a bigger picture you won’t have much of an idea as to how far up the priority list your problem is. I call this exploring the wood.
Take my own wood at the moment. It’s suffering a bit in this dry summer we are having. The one birch tree is looking particularly sick. A salesperson with a birch tree reviver product may come along and be quick to offer me a solution to my problem. But I might be more interested in doing something about all the surrounding oak trees before I focus on the birch. So exploring with me the problems I am having with maintaining the overall health and biodiversity of the wood is the starting point for then offering me help with the birch tree.
The other advantage of Closed Questions is that they demonstrate knowledge. After all, if you know what major problem a customer might be facing and can ask them specific questions about that problem then this is an excellent way of building trust and rapport with the customer. It can demonstrate to them that you really understand their business. Again, this helps to explain why salespeople love Closed Questions so much.
The value of Open Questions
We all recognise the value of Open Questions; they open up the conversation and the thinking. But this can also be scary. Closed Questions give more of a feeling of control. They allow you to direct the conversation. With an Open Question it may feel as if you are handing over control to the other person. Perhaps this is fundamentally why salespeople and others ask them less often. After all, if you want to direct the conversation in a particular way towards selling your product, why would you try to open it up and possibly send it in another direction?
Open questions are designed to open up the other person’s mind. A challenge is that they may resist this. An interesting insight from Huthwaite research is that you are more likely to get open answers to Open Questions if you ask permission to ask questions first. This indicates that you have to establish some kind of rapport or trust in the conversation before the other person will really open up to you. Which makes complete sense. Asking permission is a way of achieving this.
Most people think that it is better to ask Open Questions at the beginning of a conversation, and then follow up with Closed Questions. Whilst to a certain extent this is true there are also key points in a conversation when an Open question can be invaluable.
Using Open Questions in SPIN® selling
In SPIN® conversations for example many sellers struggle when they reach the point where they have asked lots of problem-focused questions and got the customer to reveal their pain. Sellers recognise that now they need to turn the customer’s attention towards the solution. You could refer to this as moving from pain to gain. I like to think of it as reaching the Corner of Enlightenment. You’ve been taking the customer through the Valley of Despair – racking up the problems. Now you want them to turn the Corner of Enlightenment and start looking at the potential Mountain of Opportunity. What could be the benefits to them of solving these problems? Time to use a Need-Payoff Question, rather than a problem-focused one.
At this point most sellers become stuck because the first question that comes to mind sounds something like: “So you’d like to improve your customer satisfaction then?” This is what some Huthwaite trainers like to call a “Duh” question. Because the answer is obvious. And the question therefore sounds patronising. So sellers feel awkward asking it. What then happens is that they fail to explore the value to the customer of the solution as much as they should.
If you think about what you are trying to do here just for a moment you might be able to see that at this point in the conversation you need to be opening up the customer’s thinking. You need to switch their brain from thinking pain to thinking gain. So in general, an Open Need-Payoff Question is more effective at this point.
Open Need-Payoff Questions
For example; you could ask: ”How important is it for you to improve this customer satisfaction?” Now you are asking the customer for a value judgement. Note how the Open Question gives you more information as to just how much of a priority solving this problem might be for the customer. That’s really useful information for a salesperson.
Alternatively you could ask a visioning statement, such as: “What would be your an ideal customer satisfaction score? An ex-colleague of mine identified visioning statements as being really important when it came to selling kitchens. Now you are tapping into the customer’s aspirations. Asking them to set the bar for how high they want this Mountain of Opportunity to be.
An alternative is do what I call taking them to Utopia. “How would it feel if you could achieve a customer satisfaction score of over 90%?” Now you are proposing a dream state to them. But note that all of these are Open Questions. You are trying to open up the customer to think about what could be possible.
Reducing the number of questions
The HBR article on the power of questions suggests the optimum number in a conversation should be around 11-14. Huthwaite research into mortgage counselling interviews found that different sellers obtained exactly the same information from buyers. But some used up to 40 questions to get all the answers, whilst others only used 12. Imagine the difference being on the end of 40 questions! That would almost certainly feel like an interrogation. And probably an awful lot of wasted questioning effort. A common problem with salespeople who learn SPIN® for the first time is that they go out and ask lots of questions. And guess what; the customer gets fed up with it. This is a potentially a problem when you just use Closed Questions. Because of their specific nature you need more Closed Questions to get the same information than you would if you used Open Questions.
Combining questions with feedback
I remember once watching a coaching roleplay when the person being the coach had received feedback that he did not ask enough questions. So his behavioural strategy in the roleplay was just to sit there and only ask questions. His “coachee” was squirming by the end of the conversation. He found it deeply uncomfortable. The reason? He’d been answering all these questions but at no point did he get any indication as to what the coach thought of his answers.
Using what verbal behavioural analysis defines as Reacting behaviours is an essential part of any conversation. Reacting behaviours mean basically agreeing or disagreeing. In his book Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together Bill Isaacs quotes research by David Kantor that identifies Follow (Agreement) and Oppose (Disagreement) as being essential components of any conversation. These are the Reacting behaviours.
When people don’t use Reacting behaviour they become what Huthwaite calls a Low Reactor. Low Reactors have a noticeable impact on other people. They tend to put others under stress, so their verbal behaviour changes accordingly. They ask fewer questions, talk more, and talk more quickly and incoherently.
So if you want to put somebody under stress so that you can negotiate a good deal with them, ask them lots of questions and give them no indication of what you think of their answers. If, however, you want to engage in healthy dialogue then using Reacting behaviours to balance out your questions leads to greater understanding and more productive conversations. Alternatively, if you find yourself in conversation with a Low Reactor who isn’t giving you any feedback then ask them for it. Seeking Feelings/Reactions can be a very useful behaviour.
The main purpose of asking questions is to gain greater understanding. Our research suggests that most of the time this just doesn’t happen. We ran a survey in 2018 in two companies to see what behaviours people observed in meetings. The two behaviours that came bottom of the list were: “people are curious and ask questions” and “people seek to understand rather than judge”.
Using “Testing Understanding”
Different types of question seek understanding in different ways. One of the most important behaviours that Neil Rackham identified in his earliest research was a behaviour he called Testing Understanding. This question type seeks to clarify understanding of previous content in the conversation. So a Testing Understanding question that you could ask me at this point is: “Are you saying that most people don’t ask enough questions and that most of the questions that they do ask are Closed?”
Rackham initially looked at Testing Understanding in meetings. He combined it with Summarising to analyse the level to which people clarified the content of a meeting. In meetings he found that the optimum level of Testing Understanding plus Summarising was 10% of the total behaviour recorded. Going above this level did not reduce the number of misconceptions recorded after the meeting. Dropping below this level increased the number of misconceptions considerably. In addition, if you spend too much time Testing Understanding and Summarising in a meeting then the impact on the overall feel of the meeting is that it is slow and unproductive. These aren’t action-orientated behaviours.
What they are incredibly useful for is when you want to ensure that the information you obtain from someone else is accurate. I discovered that my natural use of these behaviours in meetings is quite high. This is probably because I started out my working life designing bespoke training courses and I had to get the information I needed from high performers in the job. So I needed that information to be accurate.
Testing Understanding in negotiation
They are also useful in negotiation. In Huthwaite’s negotiation research the optimum level of Testing Understanding plus Summarising rose to 21% of total behaviour. Testing Understanding on its own was 12%. Why the increase? Well, if you think about it, in a major negotiation situation, you probably want to kick proposals around with the other side. So you are going to want to spend more time clarifying the details of what has been said.
Some people put the increased level of Testing Understanding down to what they call Incredulous Testing. For example: “are you really expecting me to accept an increase of 10% on the price without any concession from you?” For many people this is an example of Testing Understanding which feels extremely uncomfortable. I’ve had quite violent reactions to Testing Understanding during my research. People often find that it comes across as patronising. This is just an illustration of its power. But this comes back to my point. You have to understand the PURPOSE of the question so that you can use it effectively.
You can also use Testing Understanding to challenge somebody’s thinking. Again people can feel very uncomfortable with this. Where you have two people with very different standpoints one way of getting movement is to look for a chink in their argument. The only way that they are likely to move is if they feel uncomfortable with their current logical perspective. Now your questioning may be very challenging. This may explain why successful negotiators use more Testing Understanding.
Testing Understanding in coaching
When it comes to coaching we also saw higher levels of Testing Understanding. Amongst sales managers the ones who were most effective at motivating coachees had 14% of their behaviour recorded as Testing Understanding. In one coaching session with a very experienced coach I recorded 29%. Why so high? Well, coaches can use Testing Understanding to clarify what the coachee is saying. But we can also use it to probe deeper into something they are saying. Take this example. I once had a coachee tell me that they were nervous before meetings. “Nervous?” I replied. “What do you mean by nervous?” That opened up a whole new avenue in the coaching conversation which led us to begin exploring the real issues at stake.
Most qualified, accredited coaches frown on asking questions starting with Why? In verbal behaviour analysis we classify this behaviour as Seeking Reasons. Of course Seeking Reasons doesn’t necessarily have to begin with Why, but often it does. Our research indicates that it is important in both negotiation and coaching.
Negotiators may use the Why question to seek greater understanding, but also to challenge, or gain information that helps their position. Why is an incredibly powerful question but also one that people may not appreciate. They may feel that they have to justify themselves.
Judgemental or curious?
The reason experienced coaches give for avoiding Why is that it is viewed as judgemental. “Why have you done that?” I always counteract that with asking: “What’s the most common question you get from a 4 year old?” Answer: questions that begin with Why. Do we find them judgemental? No, we tend to view 4 year olds as being curious. Of course that does not mean that we find these questions easy to answer. A 4 year old’s persistent Whys? can be challenging, difficult to answer, and even irritating.
The fact that as adults we seem to automatically hear the word Why? as judgemental says a lot about how we treat each other in the workplace. It is also borne out by the research I mentioned earlier, which found that people were far less likely to seek to understand rather than judge. So if people feel consistently judged they will react badly to Why. But if we can create a safe environment for people where they start to feel understood then perhaps the Why question will be accepted, even if people find it challenging. Research has shown that effective challenge comes from a place of respect. Unless you show that you care for the other person and generally value them as an individual you will struggle to challenge them effectively.
The power of silence
Field coaching research we conducted a few years ago uncovered the power of allowing silence to fall. But what I noticed often happened when I started looking at silence is that people would ask a question, then if they didn’t get an answer after a few seconds they would follow it up with a second question or a clarifying statement. I noticed myself that if I didn’t get a response to a question within about a 5-6 second window then I would open my mouth again. Inevitably when you ask a second question you get a fairly immediate response from the other person.
But what happens if you resist the temptation to open your mouth a second time and just sit there, allowing silence to develop? In effect what you are creating is what Nancy Kline calls thinking time. In most workplaces thinking time rarely happens. We are so busy trying to do everything that we need to do that we do not have time to think. Conversations are also rushed. People don’t want to sit in silence. But when you do allow silence to fall the insights that can emerge from the other person can be profound and dramatic.
What silence brings
Allowing someone the time to really sit and think is also enhancing that feeling of seeking to understand, rather than judge. You are allowing them to set the pace of the conversation. You are allowing them to respond in their own time, rather than to your timeline. I do believe it sends an important message. Part of that message is that the question you have asked is to help the other person think. You haven’t asked the question to get information for yourself. You’ve put it out there as a gift for them to accept or not.
If they don’t understand the question they will ask you for clarification. If they don’t want to answer it then they will tell you. Alternatively they may take it and really think it through in a way that has the potential to completely reframe their thinking and help them gain new insight about themselves or about a situation. That’s the power of silence. It’s more powerful than the question itself.
Another important purpose for questions is generating action. In our coaching research the most important behaviour by far that we uncovered was Seeking Proposals. This means asking the coachee for ideas or proposals on what they were going to do next. We know from both sales and coaching research that the more “skin the other person puts into the game” in terms of putting forward proposals as to how to move forward increases the chances of them actually taking some action. In our sales research we uncovered the importance of Seeking Commitment, particularly when the customer was in the early part of the sales cycle. If the seller asked the customer to come up with a proposal it was more likely to advance the sale.
So in summary we can see that questions can have different purposes, and also send out different messages. Context is crucial. So is being able to follow a line of questioning. To hold your breath whilst you wait for an answer. Then to take your time in considering and fully understanding that answer. The most important insight I learnt about questions in all my years of research at Huthwaite? There is no point asking good questions if you don’t listen to the answers!