A Question of Balance


Share on LinkedIn

This article was first published in the March 2024 edition of Top Sales World Magazine

March 2024 CoverThere’s a clear correlation: great salespeople ask great questions. But they do much more than that – they have thoughtful, balanced conversations that leave both they and their customers thinking “that discussion was a really valuable use of my time”.

According to Neil Rackham, author of the evergreen classic SPIN® Selling (a source we’ll return to shortly) there are – broadly speaking – four potential outcomes from any sales conversation:

  • The salesperson, on the basis of the information exchanged, decides to disqualify the opportunity
  • The customer, on the basis of the information exchanged, decides to halt any further discussion
  • Both parties agree to continue their discussions, but without any other meaningful commitment
  • Both parties commit to significant actions that advance both the sales process and the buying decision journey

It’s instructive to note that top-performing salespeople tend to generate far more disqualifications or advances than their less-effective peers, whose conversations tend to result in far more avoidable halts or ultimately unproductive continuations.

Asking better questions is clearly part of the reason behind their success. In SPIN® Selling, Rackham identified four types of questions:

  • Situational questions that gather factual information about the customer’s circumstances
  • Problem questions that uncover the customer’s issues and challenges
  • Implication questions that reveal the consequences of those issues
  • Need-payoff questions that help the customer to acknowledge the value of addressing their issues

His analysis revealed that customers particularly valued and appreciated implication questions – because they stimulated them to think. Unsurprisingly, the analysis also revealed that top sales performers were particularly skilful at asking them. The analysis also revealed that customers resent being interrogated via a series of situational questions. Equally unsurprisingly, ineffective salespeople also tended to ask far too many of them.

So, achieving the right balance between these questions – and asking them skilfully – is obviously key to success. But mastering these four question types isn’t enough as the foundation for an effective sales conversation.

Sticking with questions for a moment, it turns out that there is a fifth question type that Rackham alluded to but didn’t explicitly name. These are commitment questions that seek to confirm significant advances in the buyer’s decision journey – and it turns out that top sales performers are also particularly skilful at using them regularly throughout their sales process.

But having great conversations isn’t just about asking great questions. Top sales performers balance their skilful use of appropriate questions with three other key conversational disciplines:


Sharing powerful insights that teach the customer something new, thought-provoking, and memorable is another important skill. In fact, these insights are often critical to ensuring that the customer comes away from the conversation thinking “that was a productive use of my time – I learned something new and valuable”.

It’s important that the information is both fresh and relevant. There’s very little value in sharing information that is predictable or already known – unless the salesperson can introduce a fresh perspective that challenges common perceptions. Great conversations tend to include stimulating insights.


Another top-performer conversational skill revolves around the art of storytelling. Storytelling is almost always a far more effective way of putting one’s point across than a conventional pitch or presentation. It’s a skill shared by many founders, CEOs, and top sales performers – and one of the keys to a successful story is that the listener can relate to it.

This usually means that means that the listener can see themselves in the protagonist of the story’s shoes. So, just like insights, stories must be well-chosen and convincingly delivered – and they must realistically portray the challenges and the twists and turns of a typical buyer’s journey.

The customer’s questions

The third additional conversational skill is the ability to anticipate and respond to the customer’s most likely questions. Once again, this is something that top-performing salespeople are particularly adept at. They have worked out how best to answer potentially tricky questions.

But one of the keys here – despite being prepared – is not to come across as over-rehearsed or slick. It’s often helpful to pause, reflect, and respect the customer’s question before answering – and, of course, to check that the customer is satisfied with the response.

And there’s an additional bonus – the thought processes involved in preparing for predictable questions can, of course, also help salespeople to respond more effectively to unanticipated questions.

Managing the conversation

I like to think of the conversation as a three-act play:

  1. First, the salesperson needs to set the scene by ensuring that all participants are agreed on the purpose, agenda, and goals of the conversation – and the potential to advance if these objectives are met
  2. Then, in the core of the conversation, the salesperson needs to manage and balance four key elements:
    • What do they intend to teach the customer (this is where insights play a key role)?
    • What do they need to learn from the customer (the questions they plan to ask)?
    • What do they plan to share with the customer (what stories could they tell)?
    • How will they respond to the customer’s likely questions?
  3. Finally, in summing up the conversation, the salesperson needs to ensure that the conclusions are clear, that actions are owned, and that the hoped-for advance is confirmed

Having a plan and actively managing each phase of the discussion helps to ensure that the conversation achieves its objectives, that every participant’s questions are answered, and that everyone walks away believing that the time was well spent.

Are all of your sales conversations achieving this? If not, hopefully these guidelines will help.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Bob Apollo
Bob Apollo is the CEO of UK-based Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, the B2B sales performance improvement specialists. Following a varied corporate career, Bob now works with a rapidly expanding client base of B2B-focused growth-phase technology companies, helping them to implement systematic sales processes that drive predictable revenue growth.


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here