Probing for customer needs

Simon Thiessen

Simon Thiessen About The Author

17-Sep-2015 14:00:00

use probing questions to understand customer needsQuestions, questions, questions

At The Real Learning Experience, we talk a lot about our Real-isms – the attitudes, beliefs and sayings that define us as an organisation. One that relates to sales is ‘when you think you have asked enough questions, ask a couple more’. Asking questions is the key to sales success and you should definitely ask more of them.

However, not all questions are equal – some get answers and take you places other questions don’t go.

 Surface skimmers are not enough

surface skimmers are not enough

There are questions that every sales person asks, the simple safe non-offensive questions that feel comfortable for both the sales person and the customer. If you are in sales, you have asked them a thousand times and can probably reel them off without even really thinking. The first big problem here is that they don’t find out anything that isn’t available to any sales person with a pulse. The second big problem is that they are so automatic that you probably aren’t even hearing the answer properly.

The third big problem is that the customer has heard them a thousand times and can answer them without even thinking. They don’t lie – they just give you ‘thought free’ answers. It’s a bit like asking someone ‘how are you’. 99% of people say ‘good’ – even if they have one arm hanging off, are losing site in both eyes and have just contracted an exotic disease! It’s an automatic thought free answer to an automatic thought free question.

Here are a few examples (you will know what they look like in your own sector)

  • How’s business (a classic of the B2B sales person)?
  • How long have you lived here (a favourite for the B2C sales person visiting the prospects home)
  • Have you been looking around?
  • What else have you looked at?
  • Have you used this type of product or service before?
  • Is this something you have thought about doing in the past?

Don’t get me wrong – these questions aren’t bad, they just aren’t enough. Let’s look at some of the value delivered by these questions:

  • They start a conversation and get through those awkward first moments
  • They break the ice
  • They are good simply because they are questions – you could have started by talking about yourself which would have been much worse!
  • They could be a platform for further deeper questions

Taking these questions to another level

avoid superficial questions in sales

The most important questions that a sales person can ask are probing questions. Probing questions are much more likely to uncover the customers real need. They could be open or closed questions but they is something specific that makes them probing questions: in our Sales Academy, we define probing questions as questions about answers.

This is how it works:

  • You ask a question – it could be one of the surface skimmers we discussed earlier
  • They give you an answer – depending on the first question and also on the customers style it may be a fairly automatic answer or it may be brief
  • You spot something that hasn’t been said, something alluded to or an opportunity to more fully understand the prospect so you ask another follow up question. 


This second stage of question is probing - and that's when you are likely to hear about the deeper customer needs. The critical point here is that you haven’t moved to another surface skimmer – you have gone deeper on the same topic. Have a look at this comparison using a B2B sales person:

  • The average sales person will at least ask a a surface skimmer such as ‘have you used this product or service before’. Presumably they will already know if the prospect has dealt with their own company but they may not know if they have dealt with the competitors
  • The good sales person will take the answer and probe: which competitor did you deal with; how did it work for you; what sort of results did you achieve?
  • The very good sales person will not only probe, they will ask the insightful and awkward questions as well: why did you stop using them; when you made the decision to use that product or service did you consider ours: if you considered ours, what was it that made the competitor more attractive; is that still the case or do you see us more favourably now?

How will the customer feel about being probed?

Some of these questions may seem very direct and they are less comfortable to ask but my experience is that customers are willing to answer many questions if you:

  1. Have established trust by demonstrating a focus on their needs and not on your product, service, sales targets or commissions!
  2. Are asking the questions with a genuine focus on understanding your prospects in order to meet their needs
  3. Have good interpersonal skills that allow you to use tone and body language to give questions ‘warmth’ - and if you can read the customer and 'pace' the questions by making them part of the natural flow of conversation

Fancy another tip? Probing is just as effective if you come back to a previous question. For example, if you feel the customer isn’t open enough yet for you to ask the deeper question, put it aside for now and remember to come back to it later in the sales call or even during the next sales call.

Drawing from the world’s most influential business thinker, Gary Hamel

While asking customers the right questions is essential to better serve their needs, there are also imperative questions we should constantly be asking ourselves on how to improve their overall customer experience. These are highlighted in Gary's Hamel latest book, What Matters Now. 

questions to improve customer experience

The take home message is that if we constantly evaluate our own methods on service delivery and improve them, the questions we ask our customers would naturally add value to their experience and our productivity. 

Click here to to access the presentation slides of Gary Hamel's book, What Matters Now.

One of the fundamentals of sales success

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Editor's Note: This post has been completely revamped and updated with current information and comprehensiveness from our previous post back in January, 2014. 

photo credit (question): Marco Bellucci via photopin cc photo credit (iceberg): Canadian Coast Guard via photopin cc