Sales Skills for Financial Professionals: Ask Provocative Questions

To be truly successful at getting clients, your passion for your work must be accompanied by Mastery of Three Skills:

(1) The ability to ask provocative questions
(2) The ability to listen with total focus on your client
(3) The ability to relate compelling stories and metaphors

In this article, I’ll focus on the first of these skills:

1. The ability to ask provocative questions.  If you’ve found that your prospective clients  (we’ll call them “prospects”) are backing away, it is likely that you have made the common mistake of cutting the questioning process short.  You may have jumped to the solution you provide too early.  If you’re like most professionals, before talking about your services, you do ask informational questions—who, what, where, when, how, and why.  While you need this information to understand how you can help your prospects, it is more valuable to you than it is to them.  Your prospects already have this information!  Situational questions are more likely to help you get to the bottom of your prospects’ deeper needs.

Sometimes, your simple informational questions will bring up a relevant concern—maybe even one that a prospect didn’t know he or she had.  Maybe the prospect is already working with someone in your field and is having some problems with that relationship, or with the results he/she is getting.

Well, there they are: problems!  And that’s what we do, isn’t it?  We solve problems.  So, we’re done here, right?  Isn’t it time to move on, and into the solution?

As soon as you identify this little bit of trouble in Paradise, you may want to pounce with your offer of services…but if you do, more often than not, your prospect will start squirming.  Here’s an example of a conversation my client, Lisa, a financial advisor, experienced with a prospect who had already been working with another advisor:

Lisa:  So, you haven’t heard from him in over a year and he didn’t return your call the last time you tried to reach him?  He also hasn’t explained any of these things we’ve been talking about today, right?  It sounds like you’re not getting the service you need from him.  I can promise you that I’ll check in with you once a quarter and I always return calls immediately.  How about we go ahead and transfer your accounts…

Prospect:  You know, actually, I’ve been working with this guy for almost eight years.  I think I should try to talk to him again first and, if he doesn’t return my call, I can get back to you.

One reason this conversation may have ended as it did—with the prospect’s objection—is that the problem Lisa identified is also one that she had to imply.  Your prospects are always weighing whether their need for change is explicit and urgent enough for it to be worth their while to do all the work required to make that change.

When there’s only a vague sense of a problem, the scale tips in favor of leaving things as they are.  To avoid running into a brick wall, you need to move from implied problems to explicit problems.  And you can only get your prospects to see explicit problems by asking more [situational] questions first.

Here’s how Lisa learned to handle her next conversation, after working with me on asking better questions:

Lisa:  So you haven’t heard from him in over a year and he didn’t return your call the last time you tried to reach him?  He also hasn’t explained any of these things we’ve been talking about today, right?  How is this level of service affecting you?

Prospect:  It’s a little annoying that he doesn’t return my calls, but I guess I’m doing okay.

Lisa:  Does it worry you that there’s no one reassuring you about your retirement, or letting you know the status of your accounts?

Prospect: Well, actually, that’s the reason I agreed to sit down with you.  I am concerned that there might be more I should be doing, or that I might need to change my strategy.

Lisa:  And if you try him again, and maybe he responds this time, but doesn’t respond again the next time you have a concern, will that be okay?

Prospect:  Well, no.  I need to feel like someone is watching out for me.  Maybe my account is just too small for him.

Lisa:  Well, how small is it?  What’s at stake here?

Prospect:  I mean, this is my life savings we’re talking about!

Lisa:  Yes, it is.  So, I guess the only question is, does it make more sense for you to wait and see what happens with this guy—or to start working with someone who definitely has availability for you, and does not think your life savings is “no big deal”?

Prospect:  I probably shouldn’t wait around to be disappointed again.  Can you tell me more about how you work?…

To get more clients, ask provocative questions.  And contact me if you’d like to explore how I might be able to help.

Next week, I’ll discuss the second skill for getting clients: the ability to actively listen.  In the meantime, keep REACHING…

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Nev says:

This is such a critical skill for us all Sandy and I thank you for explaining it so elegantly. I particularly LOVED your example conversations, really helped drive the point home. An excellent 3-part series over all. Thanks.