I’m often asked by students who are just learning the sales process (and who want very much to do well at it), “How many questions should I ask a customer on a sales call?” I tell them that they need to plan at least 50.

It’s a completely arbitrary number.

The point of that response is not the number, it’s the planning. Fifty questions strung closely together in a row are an interrogation. Two leading questions that are designed to move the customer to a “yes” are usually just part of a transaction, and don’t really gain much customer intelligence that will prevent a competitor from making inroads. In neither of those situations is the questioning process likely to be effective in developing a productive long-term relationship.

The questioning process is the most powerful tool available to salespeople. Savvy sellers know that we use different questioning approaches to accomplish different goals. The questions we use to develop strategic relationships are what we call “discovery” questions.

Not all questions asked during a sales call are discovery questions. Poorly done, discovery focuses only on what the seller wants to find out. It is almost a disservice to call that kind of questioning “discovery.” What is the customer’s role in that? To be discovered? In that case, we’re not talking about discovery, but probing, which is the general term for asking questions on a sales call.

The difference between probing and effective discovery is that discovery is a conversation. There are at least two parties involved. Making the conversation useful to both sides requires planning. It requires both sides being involved in selecting the topics for discussion. Discovery means giving thought to how the conversation benefits the customer, not just the seller.

Considering how a discovery conversation will benefit a customer is difficult. Many salespeople take the approach that asks questions that say, “Help ME, help YOU.” Transactionally, that’s true, but the value in that process only exists if the customer buys. An effective discovery conversation helps the customer on the call.

More than 10 years ago during a visit to the Purdue campus, Neil Rackham, author of the best-selling book, SPIN Selling, said, “Customers today are so busy that a salesperson must bring so much value on a sales call that the customer is willing to take out their checkbook and write the salesperson a check for the value delivered on the call.”

That is a high bar, but Rackham accurately foretold a world in which multiple suppliers would be delivering similar value to a shrinking pool of busier and more complex buyers.

This summer is a good time to sharpen discovery efforts. For many products, summer is outside of the transactional selling season, which means it’s a good time to plan for and practice discovery conversations.

Precision Selling

Learn more about discovery and managing strategic accounts at Precision Selling, a sales education program from Purdue University’s Center for Food and Agricultural Business. The program, led by David Downey and Scott Downey, runs July 31-August 1 on Purdue’s West Lafayette campus. It offers access to two farmers who will practice discovery with participants, as well as time to practice strategic account planning for a specific customer.

Learn more and register.