The Most Powerful Question in Sales (and 3 Ways to Use it)

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David’s article originally published on the Salesforce.com blog


As sales leaders, we’re often approached by our reps to weigh in on deal strategy.

“What should I do? …”

“…I have this customer who’s interested in our solution and I’m trying to figure out how best to position our value.”

“…I’m putting together a presentation for the customer’s executive team and want to make sure it’s high-impact.”

“…the customer came back and said they’re looking at a competitive product that’s much cheaper than ours.”

For me, these strategy discussions are actually one of the most fun parts of the job…but over the years, as I started to have more and more of these conversations, I found that 90% of the time the first question out of my mouth back to the rep was exactly the same:

“What problem are they looking to solve?”

What I soon realized was that this universal refrain was arguably the most powerful question in sales. If you want to understand why, consider these three scenarios:

The Qualification:

During the qualification process, a good sales rep assesses the fit between the customer’s needs and their solution. While the rep understands that most sales cycles take time and involve a series of steps, this first phase is critical to understanding how to position the value of their solution and set the tone for the engagement—or perhaps pull out of the deal if they don’t feel there’s a fit.

To help sales reps along, we craft lists of qualification questions—tools designed to both uncover our customer’s strategic and operational pains and foreshadow our ability to solve them. Unfortunately, these questions can often be too leading and solution-centric (e.g. “Do you get complaints from your employees about their pay not being calculated properly?” “Does your web traffic monitoring software provide deep analytics into location-based click through rates?”). We may indeed get answers to our questions, but we may not come away with the higher level-business context behind them in the customer’s language.

Looking at the qualification process through the lens of “What problem are they looking solve?” before, during, and after the conversation changes that. It helps us reconcile pains in a customer-centric context and provides us with helpful insights to craft our deal strategy (or graciously walk away if it turns out we aren’t able to solve their problem). In fact, asking the customer this question directly can be a perfectly acceptable (and in some cases, a greatly refreshing) qualification tactic.

Net-net: if you don’t come away from a qualification process knowing what problem the customer is looking to solve (in their language), you’ve wasted your time.

The Presentation:

Good reps know that a big part of the sales presentation is demonstrating your knowledge of the customer’s business environment. Showing that you’ve listened and demonstrating how your solution can specifically meet the customer’s needs not only establishes value in that solution, but in yourself as a sales professional as well. That’s why the presentation stage is also a perfect time to flex the most powerful question in sales!

One technique I’ve found works great for this is to include a slide (or even simply a talk track) early in your presentation entitled “What we heard” or “Your current state.” Here, you lay out the specifics of what you’ve learned about their business in the context of the problems they’re looking to solve (e.g. “We heard that you’re looking to grow your business aggressively this year, which includes adding lots of new staff. You want these new people to be productive quickly so they can start driving revenue and servicing customers, but right now you don’t have a consistent way of onboarding new employees and setting clear goals for their first 30, 60, and 90 days.”)

After you’ve delivered the content, pause, and ask the audience if your understanding of the problems they’re looking to solve jives with theirs. By doing this you’ll build massive credibility for being spot-on and/or gain new insights you can quickly incorporate into the rest of your presentation.

Bonus impact: Oftentimes, these post-qualification presentations include additional stakeholders that haven’t been as involved with you or your solution until now. By framing your pitch in the context of the business problems they’re looking to solve, you’ll promote a more frictionless sales cycle by making new participants comfortable with your approach from the outset.

The Defense:

Unfortunately, very few sales just fall into your lap [pause for the collective gasp of shock from the sales community]. The reality is, sometimes things get dicey; you have to play a little defense. The good news is that if you’ve used the most powerful question in sales to nail the qualification and the presentation phases, the defensive game will be much easier.

Here’s what I mean: Suppose you’ve established that you have a well-differentiated solution that’s a great fit for the problem your customer is looking to solve. A new full-size SUV, for example, for your client: a family of five with three young children who told you they hated the thought of getting a minivan. Over the course of the sales cycle, you established that the family preferred your particular SUV not only because it was the most safe and stylish on the market, but it was uniquely able to fit three carseats across the back row (key for them). You were also able to structure the payments to fit within their monthly budget. Then, in the final stages, the buyer comes back referencing competitive pressures from another manufactuer offering a similar vehicle.

In this case the most powerful question in sales can be used as an awesome defense (i.e. holding your price point and underscoring the value of your solution) by diplomatically getting the customer to refocus on the problem they were looking to solve, i.e. “It seems as though you were looking for an SUV that was rated highest in safety and could fit three car seats across the back row. I know there are other SUVs on the market, but this is the only one that meets all of those criteria. Did something change?”

This tactic works especially well in the face of the dreaded “do nothing” option sales people so frequently see. You’ve positioned a great solution with a compelling ROI when the customer comes back and tells you they’ve decided to hold off and do nothing. “Hey, no problem, but help me understand…you shared some key business challenges we can help you address with a compelling ROI and the key stakeholders seemed to agree. What changed?”

While in some cases you’ll be successful at turning the tide in your favor, is all cases you’ll gain valuable insights that will help you better service that customer now or in the future.

Whether you’re in the initial or final stages of sales cycle and whether you’re a sales rep or manager, promoting continuous focus on helping your customer solve their key problems is always a winning strategy. Just remember to ask the most powerful question early and often!

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