Prompting Questions: When and Why You Need Them

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What are prompting questions in sales? Can prompting questions help drive innovation?

Prompting questions are types of questions designed to inspire personal responses from the buyer. Prompting questions can help you discover a customer’s needs while making a sale, or can serve as a tool for you to figure out what’s working or not working in your sales strategy.

Prompting questions are a useful and versatile tool. Here’s how they work.

Why Ask Prompting Questions?

“Prompting questions” force you to expand your thinking and fully explore an issue before drawing conclusions. There are three types of prompting questions:

  • Questions that enhance understanding: They counter the tendency to propose or discard options before you fully understand the problem. Ask: What’s the bigger picture that this customer situation fits into? What else must be going on? Use these questions if you tend to default to one size fits all.
  • Questions that broaden perspective: They counter the tendency to view challenges only from a personal or sales-focused perspective. Ask: If you were the customer’s CFO, what would you look for in this offering? What will the marketing director think of it? Use these questions if you tend to over-rely on personal experience.
  • Questions that expand options: They counter the tendency to consider only ideas that fit existing assumptions. Ask: What would you do differently if you had more money to pursue this customer? What would you do if you had more time? Use these questions if you tend to dismiss ideas as impractical before they’re fully developed.

The SCAMMPERR framework, a prompting question tool, helps you work through ideas. The example below uses this question tool to reposition a sales offer instead of granting a discount.

S—Substitute: What could we do instead?

C—Combine: How could we combine approaches?

A—Adapt: What outside ideas could be adapted to this situation?

M—Magnify: How could we put more emphasis on value?

M—Modify: How can we change the offer to make it more relevant?

P—Put to another use: How might a different stakeholder value this?

E—Eliminate: What elements that the customer is unwilling to pay for can we eliminate?

R—Rearrange: How can we change the order of things to make them more relevant?

R—Reverse: What if we do the exact opposite?

Efficiency Versus Effectiveness

In the sales manager’s world, the roles of resource allocation and sales innovation can conflict. Prompting questions can help identify issues, and lead to solutions.

Resource allocation is efficiently managing limited resources through better territory management, deal qualification, and sales process compliance. While resource allocation focuses on efficiency, sales innovation focuses on effectiveness.

A manager focus on effectiveness has almost twice the impact of an efficiency approach.

Efficiency involves improving at what you’re already doing as a matter of routine. This works in an environment of traditional, straightforward product selling, where most deals are the same and customers behave predictably. Effectiveness involves innovating and collaborating to address the unexpected in a sales environment where there are many unknowns. Effectiveness takes precedence over efficiency.

However, in a recent survey of frontline managers, most managers said their current environment is dominated by an emphasis on efficient execution. Almost none agreed that “leadership empowers managers to set their own course.” But they cited empowerment or freedom to make decisions as the most important factors for them to be successful.

It takes time to change, but there are immediate things companies can do to equip sales managers to be more innovative at the deal level.

Helping Managers Innovate

The way managers think every day is one of the biggest obstacles to innovation. They apply “narrowing thinking,” which involves looking at a complex problem, considering existing options, and producing a solution.

It works for tough, fast decisions about managing resources. But narrowing thinking restricts managers’ ability to develop creative sale solutions because it works by eliminating existing options rather than generating new ones for consideration.

The alternative is “opening” or expansive thinking—generating and considering as many different options or alternatives as possible. This is one way you can use prompting questions.

To build innovative managers, companies need to equip them with tools and frameworks to think expansively. The first thing to do is raise their awareness of what’s hindering expansive thinking. Research has identified a number of human biases that often get in the way. The most common are:

  • Practicality bias: the tendency to reject ideas that seem impractical
  • Confirmation bias: the tendency to ignore inexplicable customer behaviors and focus on ones they understand well
  • Exportability bias: the belief that it won’t work elsewhere because it didn’t work here
  • Legacy bias: the belief that the way we’ve always done it is best
  • First conclusion bias: the belief that the first explanation is the best 
  • Personal bias: the belief that if I wouldn’t buy it, the customer won’t either

These biases help us sort large amounts of information and make decisions quickly. However, they keep our perspective narrow. For instance, they might keep a sales manager from uncovering an innovative solution to a stuck deal because he looks at it with these biases instead of putting himself in the customer’s shoes.

To help managers overcome these biases:

  • Raise awareness of them.
  • Train managers to raise specific questions to prompt thinking from other perspectives.

Prompting questions can be incredibly helpful while you’re trying to identify problems. You can use prompting questions in your sales conversations or i your self-evaluations.

Prompting Questions: When and Why You Need Them

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  • Why the best salespeople take control of the sale and challenge the customer's thinking
  • How to package your company with a key insight to spark an "a-ha" moment
  • How to get the organizational support you need to maintain your sales edge

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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