New sales managers often fall for the common misconception that being a manager or a leader is about having the answers. They take a fairly reductionist perspective that being a manager is about telling people what to do. The reality is that most people, sales people in particular, don’t like to be told what to do. A great sales manager realizes that it’s about being a coach, and about coaching people to discover what they could be doing differently through questions.
This skill mirrors the development of an individual seller. When sales people start out, they mostly pitch at their prospects and tell them about all the features. Maybe they start to understand the prospect’s perspective and start talking about the value. The problem is that they are pitching at the prospect. They are not having a conversation with the prospect, they are not listening, and they are certainly not asking questions yet. Over time, as they better understand their product and their customers, they start to listen more and eventually start asking questions.
Whats the point?
The goal here is that a manager should be using questions to guide a team member through the process of clearly expressing him/herself, and potentially resolving his/her own problems.
It’s counter-intuitive, but questions allow the team member to maintain ownership over his/her work, rather than constantly deferring to his/her manager for the answers. Over time, these questions re-enforce to the team member that s/he already knows many of the answers to his/her questions.
What are some good questions?
- Why do you think that?
- What number would change because of that?
- Do you think that worked?
- What could you have done differently?
How do I start doing this?
Now for the hard part. In theory, asking questions makes sense, and most people could probably ask questions on command. The real issue is remembering to do it in the heat of the moment.
If a salesperson grabs their manager on the floor and is struggling, most of the time the sales manager’s instincts just kick in. The manager will try to solve the problem for the salesperson as quickly as possible. Managers, after all, want to be helpful, right?
The key to changing is figuring out a easier place to start applying the new habit. Find a situation that happens on a regular schedule and where the manager can prepare, like one-on-ones. WideAngle, a tool for managing one-on-ones, recommends limiting yourself to less than 5 questions if you’ve only got 30 minutes. They also recommend planning the questions out in advance, and rotating them so you’re introducing some variety into the conversations.
Ringio, a calling technology platform for sales teams, thinks along the same lines. They’d recommend questions like “What success did you have in the last week?” or “Is there anything blocking you from getting work done?”.
Once you get comfortable asking questions in the controlled one-on-one environment, then the next step should be expanding and using them in impromptu situations on a day to day basis. Start simple, get a few wins, and then try to expand your new skill!