I talk too much in sales meetings. Either I get excited about the project and start riffing on how they can accomplish their goals, or I warm up to a question my prospective client asked. I forget to use my consulting questions, and two “brief” anecdotes and one three credit-hour course in the Austin Church School of Marketing later, I pause to catch my breath.

Of course my prospect now has that astonished (or resigned) look of someone who is halfway through a dousing from a firehose.

Yikes.

A flash of self-awareness will then compel me to stop jabbering and start asking questions instead.

Two Basic Approaches to Sales

This course correction proceeds from my belief in the second of two approaches to sales:

  1. You talk to sell; or
  2. You listen to sell.

Despite my loquacity, I endorse the latter approach. In my experience your prospects will sell themselves if you shut up and listen.

To buy, people need an itch, not a pitch.

Through clever persuasion or sheer volume you can sometimes close a sale. People will write a check to shut you up or bribe you to go away.

But in my experience sales-as-consultation—that is, asking open-ended questions to help both parties draw a circle around the itch—produces higher value per project. Consultative sales often increases the project scope because the prospect and I together identify that there’s more work to be done than was evident in her initial request.

Fewer Headaches & Higher Profit Margins

As counterintuitive as it may seem, you build a prospect’s confidence when you talk less. You display more poise. You nod. You take notes. Insightful questions testify to your competence more than your clever monologues. Consultative sales also positions you as the expert.

For their part, clients feel heard and understood. They most certainly do not feel like you’re selling at them.

Down the road, these clients make fewer demands and accept the marketing medicine that you dispense without suspicion, skepticism, or complaint.

How you sell, more than what you sell, determines both the outcome of the meeting and the final value of the engagement.

If I listen well and take the time to identify root needs (rather than simply pin a quote to surface-level requests), I receive less pushback during the project. Clients who have more clarity going into the engagement also have more confidence in the proposed path. This confidence results in quicker decisions on their end and less explaining and personality management on mine.

My overall time investment decreases as their satisfaction in the process increases. With flat-fee engagements, less time spent on bringing the project to a successful conclusion means a higher effective hourly rate.

In short, consultative sales produces projects with higher profit margins.

Before we move on, I want to define the term.

consulting questions 2

Photo Credit: Jonathan Simcoe via Unsplash

What do I mean by “sales-as-consultation”?

Sales-as-consultation is facilitating a process of self-discovery for the client.

By virtue of taking time out of their day to discuss a problem, need, or goal, they can gain clarity around it.

Clarity becomes confidence becomes action becomes results.

Sales-as-consultation’s primary tool is open-ended questions.

You will of course talk some. You may need to punctuate your prospective client’s thoughts with your own (brief) interjections. You may repeat back what you’ve just heard for the sake of gaining a more accurate understanding. You may gently interrupt so as to get the discussion back on track. But mostly, you ask questions and take notes.

Open-ended questions peel back uncertainty and anxiety. Without the murkiness of indecision and excuses clouding their judgment, most clients can see a clear path forward. As the impromptu guide, who has already proven himself trustworthy, I become the obvious choice as ongoing pathfinder.

Here’s another nuance here worth special emphasis: As a consultative seller, I don’t have to have all the answers. No, my role is to use the tools at my disposal to uncover what my prospect already knows.

If consultation is archaeology, then open-ended consulting questions are toothbrushes, not jack hammers. By contrast, my opinions may be jack hammers. They seem to do the job faster than questions but do more harm than good.

When you flap your jaw in a sales meeting (or even a get-to-know-you meeting), it’s up to you to deliver a convincing pitch, to give an applaudable performance, so to speak. But you can take the pressure off yourself by asking thought-provoking questions instead of going through your script.

A client’s conviction in the right course of action is a better pitch than your pitch.

What does this look like in action?

So hold off on the impressive gymnastics routine for a second and instead help your prospects excavate their goals and desires.

You want to find that conviction and reconnect them it. Dig it up and put it in their hands. Wash it off and show it to them. They’ll be so appreciative that they’ll say the oddest things like, “When can we start?” (This often occurs before they have asked about your rates.)

Sales-as-consultation—or call it “discovery” if you like—creates an opportunity for clients to sell themselves.

Your part in this discovery process will go something like this:

  • Say hi.
  • Go through the requisite get-to-know you stuff. Keep it brief without being awkward about that brevity.
  • Transition with a question like, “So how can I help you? From your point of view, what brings us here today?”
  • Shut up.
  • Ask open-ended consulting questions.
  • Ask more specific, clarifying questions as needed.
  • Take notes.

Whether or not clients are aware of it, open-ended questions loosen them up and get them talking about deeper stuff that drives their decision-making.

Toward the end of your meeting, you can review your notes aloud.

“Okay. I’m going to repeat back some of what I’ve heard to ensure that we’re on the same page. See if this sounds accurate to you… .”

Then, you sum up what you have discovered together to build consensus.

Then, you identify next steps.

Then, you explain a couple of different ways that you and the client can work together to accomplish those steps.

Then, you ask which option the client prefers.

Then, the next day, you send over a quote.

Then, once you settle on the scope and compensation, you send over client service agreement and a payment link.

consulting questions

Photo Credit: Evan Dennis via Unsplash

My Basic Toolkit of 16 Open-Ended Consulting Questions

But I’m getting ahead of myself. You might be wondering, “What open-ended questions should I ask?”

Here are sixteen consulting questions that work well for me—in no particular order:

  1. If you could accomplish only one thing by the end of this meeting, what would that be?
  2. That’s pretty broad. Which part would you like to focus on? Okay, and which part of that?
  3. So if we were to get you some clarity around that, then you’d walk away feeling good about our time together today?
  4. Can you help me see how that connects to the outcome you’re after?
  5. Let me put you on pause for a second. I heard you say you wanted to talk about original subject. This seems to be a new direction. Do you want to go this new direction or stick to original subject?
  6. What is the project?
  7. By when are you looking to have it finished?
  8. Tell me how you came up with the project. What changed or what happened that made you realize, “I need to do X”?
  9. Can you tell me more about the “something” that this project will solve? What itch will the project scratch?
  10. What’s your biggest challenge with your business?
  11. What would you like do see happen? What does a home run look like in this situation?
  12. If you were to achieve that, what would that mean for your business?
  13. What happened that made you think, “I need to do something about X”?
  14. Have you worked with someone like me—in my case, a marketing consultant—before?
  15. How did that go?
  16. Is there anything that could keep this project from being successful? Are there any risks and/or opportunity costs if you were to do nothing?

Sales-as-consultation is not coloring inside the lines.

This way of thinking about sales will require a paradigm shift for freelancers and creatives who expect their clients to say, in effect, “Here are the lines. Color inside them.”

You may be more comfortable when a client gives you a site map for a website or a bullet point list of blog post topics. But make the right mental shifts, as the situation demands, from vendor to advisor, specialist to consultant, and you’ll capture more work. (You can read more on those mental shifts here.)

The fact is, your prospects may need help figuring out what they want. They need safe space where they can express doubt and frustration; fear and hope; resignation and enthusiasm.

You are the archaeologist, not the acrobat.

Some clients will know what they want, but not all. So as to not leave needs (that is, money) on the table, listen then dig.

Consulting in two words: Listen. Dig.

In Closing

I often charge for this discovery process. I package it up as a Get Clarity session for my fellow writers and creatives and as a Roadmapping* Session for my content marketing and marketing consulting clients.

Clarity has value in its own right, and the best way to bring clarity is to unpack your open-ended consulting questions and let your prospects do most of the talking.

(Hat tip: My friend Brennan Dunn of Double Your Freelancing taught me about “Roadmapping,” and several of the questions in my list above are variations of his.)

Do you want to build a profitable business you love?

Duh. Pony up that email address, and you can learn from my failures. You can laugh at my mistakes. You can envy my success at croquet, slow running, and modest bank accounts. Let’s make good money and leave the world better than we found it.

No-nonsense business advice for content writers and freelancers. Served warm with a side of dad jokes.

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