If I were to ask you which of the following three skills have the greatest impact on your sales success, which would you choose — listening, asking questions or presenting? Your choice will have a lot to do with your strength and weaknesses, but your answer will also depend on whether you feel you can be honest or vulnerable.

The three skills are not equally important. The one that impacts your results the least is presenting, and it’s the easiest to improve. It’s also the safest choice because it’s the least likely to be judged. There isn’t much risk in improving this skill. The returns on your effort to improve feel immediate because you find out if you won or not right after a pitch. The triumph is very deceiving because the win often happens long before the presentation.
The hardest to improve is your listening skills. Ironically, it’s the one people least admit because this answer is most likely to be critiqued — no one wants to label themselves a bad listener. It takes vulnerability to acknowledge this weakness openly.

The most impactful skill is asking questions. It’s the one that can help you become a better listener and improve your presentations. The better questions you ask, the more you learn, and the more you weave your prospect’s language into the presentation. A presentation where you help the prospect become the lead character in their change story is more powerful than your expertise or sales story.

Not All Questions Are Created Equal

I’m not talking about open- or closed-ended questions. The key to asking good questions is learning how to motivate your prospects to invest time in their answers. Will their answer be polite (politically correct), honest or vulnerable? You get out of a question what you put into it.

Polite – These answers take very little effort from the prospect and have little risk of being judged. There are many times the prospect isn’t sure they feel comfortable answering your question but wants to be courteous anyway. Instead of answering your question, they are distracted by thinking, “Why are you asking the question?” or “What do you plan to do with my answer?” Either way, they aren’t willing to invest the time and effort in providing you an answer. This can also happens when the prospect feels their honesty will be used against them (finding their pain) so that you can sell them. They default to a courteous response.

Honest – These are the answers your prospects share when they can still manage your perception of them. They speak the truth but are still able to keep you at a distance. For example, “Yes, this is an area we can improve.” This is an honest answer, but not necessarily vulnerable. Leaping to your solution at this point would be premature. All they really told you is they trust you enough to admit they could improve.

It doesn’t tell you if they feel enough pressure or trust to embrace the uncertainty of making a change. Remember, your prospect can be honest with many but will be vulnerable with only a few.

Vulnerable – These are often second-, third- and sometimes fourth-level answers, generated by your in-depth follow-up questions. To encourage your prospect to go down this path, you’ll need to use empathy when asking your question and tell the prospect exactly why you’re asking the question. “Mr. Prospect, I can tell you’ve worked hard on your current strategy. I’m asking this question to better understand how you got to this point.” Your prospect may reply, “This is an area we can improve, and here’s what’s at stake if we don’t.” Vulnerability comes when the other person feels you have their best interests at heart. It won’t come if they feel your questions only serve you.

Honest answers do represent the truth but can still keep you at a distance. If your prospect says, “Yes, we need to improve that area,” a second-level question with empathy can generate a more vulnerable answer that invites you in. You might ask, “Has there been something holding you back from making the improvement?” Your prospect may respond, “Yes, we’ve struggled to make the improvements because…”

So, which level of learning would you prefer to take into a presentation? The answer is obvious, but you’re going to have to learn some new skills around how you ask your questions and put in the hard work to make the skills your own. If you want more vulnerable conversations with your prospect that lead to their making a change, you’ll have to change first.