There’s no such thing as a stupid question… Oh yes there is!

Conventional wisdom says that a great sales manager has a coaching toolbox that is full of great questions. These questions start conversations, develop in-depth understanding, and gain commitment to action. And so much more. It’s only a matter of reaching into the tool box and getting the “right” question.

But sometimes, despite our best intentions, what we ask for is not what we mean. Like this:

“What are some of the unknown problems we will encounter?”

Nonetheless people are listening.

Challenge #1:

It’s really difficult to define what makes a question “good” or “bad” or “great” simply because there’s a paradox involved.

A great question is defined not so much by what you say, as it is by what you hear.

It’s a lousy question if what you hear (the rep’s response) doesn’t address the key issue that prompted the question in the first place, no matter what they say.

Challenge #2:

The biggest contributor of lousy questions is that they are created by you, the sales manager, for you, the sales manager.

Even if your intent is honourable, most lousy questions are created by trying to direct a conversation that underlies your agenda.

So let’s look at 4 commonly used lousy questions sales managers ask and learn from them.

“How do you think that sales call went?”

This is the most common question sales coaches use to start a coaching conversation.

And they use it because it’s a vague, open-ended, non-threatening catch-all question. The intent is to give the rep a chance to express the link between their pre-call plan and the outcome of the call, usually with a smattering of what the customer said, or did, or promised to do next.

In reality, the rep is often so focussed on the sales call and the customer in front of them, AND more than just a little anxious with you there, that they have no real idea how to answer the question.

They cannot be intimately involved in the selling interaction and be a witness to it. So they usually say what they hope will make you happy.

What really makes it a lousy leading question, so open to interpretation, is the lack of context that’s established by you before the call. Replace the vagueness with some specifics; what will you be observing? Focussing on?

Maybe have a pre-call discussion about “what a good sales call looks like.”

“What didn’t work?”

The intent here is to reveal the rep’s valuable traits of self-awareness, maturity, honesty, and humility.

Actually you’re asking them to openly discuss failure.

The issue is that when you look at negatives in the past you start to create doubts in the future. Finding shortcomings in others means you talk about what you think they need. What’s broken.

And this, dear reader, is one of the most soul-destroying aspects of sales coaching … that reps see it (and you) with the sole focus of catching them doing something wrong or that something always needs to be fixed.

A change in perspective is needed.

If, instead, you find positives then you start to talk about potential in the future. Finding the good stuff means you talk about possibilities.

Create a positive context by asking, “What I noticed was (a strength) … what did you feel or sense?”

“Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”

The intent is often to create a developmental plan that is tailored and structured “just for them.”

In reality the rep may be unwilling to commit because they’ve seen many plans shattered because of market/ company/ economic forces that you and they have no control over; think redundancies and mergers.

Ironically, an answer like “I’m just happy to be a rep” can mark them as “lacking ambition.”

Or “I want to get into marketing” gets you thinking that they will leave the second they get a better offer.

The doubt is created because this question can be answered in more “wrong” ways than “right.”

Instead talk about their talents that you observe, their values and beliefs and aspirations, and about opportunities to develop and grow both personally and professionally.

“Tell me about a time when you encountered a challenge like this.”

Here the intent is to encourage the rep to talk about similar experiences that have ended in some success. The idea is to leverage from some self-awareness or reflection of the past, to the present.

What the rep hears is more than a question about “a challenge.” It’s the need to create an answer about a favourable outcome to dealing with difficult co-workers or angry customers, missed deadlines; where they dug deep, found extra effort and accomplished a miracle.

Problem is sometimes they didn’t handle the situation well or have never been tested in this situation.

This is an opportunity for you to create a solution context by humbly talking about what you’ve learnt from these situations and to merge that with the rep’s current skills and talents. It’s an opportunity to create some wisdom.

The Bottom Line: The quality of your questions is directly related to the context you establish before it’s asked.  It’s not just about the selection of words or tone of voice.