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Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Is it time to kill-off the "Killer Question"?

When delivering training in sales, negotiation and influence, I’m often asked about the use of so-called “killer questions”. I first came across the term about 15 years ago and to be honest, I was a little puzzled by it. I’d heard of the “killer instinct” which I guess is a second-cousin of the “killer question”, but I never did get my head around why anyone would want to “kill” anything? Maybe I’m just not the aggressive type, but the bottom line is that it just doesn’t make sense to me to kill off anyone or anything that may come in useful at a later date!

Giving the “killer question” concept a second chance, I decided to look into it a bit further. Maybe it was just an unfortunate name for concept that’s actually quite useful? What I discovered quite quickly was that the “killer question” approach proposes a series of ‘off-the-peg’ questions that are so dynamic and powerful that you can pull them out and nail a deal in a flash… It sounded too good to be true, but still somewhat appealing to think that there could be a magic question that can get you the result you’re after.

Being a bit of a skeptic, and being trained not to take anything at face value, I began to consider the killer question premise in a little more detail… Firstly, if there really is an ultimate question that can be asked, how can the same question have the same brilliant effect in every situation? Surely an effective sales person, negotiator or influencer needs to be able to tailor their communication style and approach, and not just drag out a one-size-fits-all question? Asking killer questions also seemed to me to be extremely patronizing and disrespectful, as it assumes that the recipient/customer is too dim to realize that they’re being manipulated.

The reality is that the workplace is definitely becoming more pressurized. People are being asked to achieve more in less time. So the idea that we can push our way forward towards our own goals, ignoring the sensibilities, intelligence, needs and values of those around us is in a small way understandable. For anyone looking for quick and easy gimmicks, there are of course many sources of advice on the internet about how to use clever openers, killer questions, value propositions, and the latest genius closing techniques.

So how do you know if you or your colleagues are guilty of asking “killer questions”? Here are three of the most lethal/irritating that I’ve come across:

1. "What do you know about us/me/this project/proposal…?"

If the person you’re trying to influence/sell to/negotiate with is on the ball, they will immediately ask you if this is a test. Nobody likes to be put on the spot, so why would anyone want to risk potentially humiliating and alienating the person they wish to influence, right from the start? Perhaps it’s because they simply want to know what the person thinks of them, their idea or proposal before presenting their side. However, it would be good to remember that whether the person knows a lot, a little, or nothing at all about what you have to offer, nobody knows it as well as you – so it’s your job to tell them and not the other way around.

2. "What will it take to get you to agree/your business…?"

This is probably one of the most unimpressive “killer” questions, as it implies that you are so desperate for a sale or for agreement that you may be willing to do anything in order to close the deal! If you aren’t willing to do anything, then why ask that question? Instead, it would be far more constructive to use a more consultative process of discussion in order to uncover what the person actually needs/wants in a less confrontational/direct way.

3. "Can I call you next week/in two weeks/a month?"

This is another “killer” question that puts the other person on the spot. Firstly, what is so special about following up in 7, 14 or 30 days? It may be a good time-scale for you, but don’t assume that it is just as good for them, or that they even want you to follow-up on your conversation. Secondly, they may not want you to call them at all... So instead of dictating the follow up time-frame, you could ask if it would be helpful to get back in touch, and when would be the best time for them. At least that way you know you won’t be wasting your time or their time, or becoming an irritant to someone who just doesn’t feel able to say “no”.

Anyone who is a keen observer of human behaviour, and anyone who is an experienced business-person will tell you for nothing that investing in long-term relationships is so much more precious than the short-term gains of the smoke-and-mirror, and ‘bullish’ approaches. Surely effective sales, negotiation and influence involves engaging the other person in a meaningful dialogue about their wants, needs, and problems - and how your solutions/proposals might be of value to them. In a collaborative process, the other person is free to make their own considered decisions, and they will also take responsibility for the outcome of those decisions.

So you are convinced that killer questions aren’t actually as wonderful as they’re meant to be. But what should you replace them with? Here are some alternative question formats that you might find useful in the process of uncovering needs:
  • What are the different ways that you...?
  • Can you recall a situation where...?
  • What would you do differently if...?
  • What's been your experience with...?
  • Whose opinion matters most about...?
  • What prevents you from...?
  • What three things stand in your way...?
  • What are the benefits you'd like to see as a result of...?
  • How are you avoiding...?
  • What trends are affecting the way you...?
  • What do you think is the best way to achieve...?
  • What are you missing out on by...?
  • How would you like… to describe...?
  • What would need to happen for you to feel...?
  • What would your three best customers say about...?
  • What are the most common questions that your customers ask when...?
  • In the past six months, how have you...?
  • What advice would you give to...?
  • What are you currently doing to reduce...?
  • What do you think makes the difference between...?

So next time a well-meaning but ill-informed colleague asks you to can share your “killer questions” with them, you know what to do: suggest that using a consultative approach might be more productive, and tell them that a killer question may well kill the deal, but it’s also likely to murder the on-going relationship!

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