The best salespeople minimize how much time they spend talking — and maximize the amount of time they can get their prospect talking about themselves.

Consider this scenario: a prospect requests a product demo. You schedule a time and get on the call. After spending the meeting explaining your product and all of its features, the prospect ghosts you, or tells you that they are no longer interested in learning more.

What went wrong? It’s likely a simple answer: you didn’t ask enough questions.

Question-asking can help you qualify a lead and unearth their pain points, but it does so much more than that. Asking questions causes people to like you more. And when people like you, they trust you, and they want to work with you.

The Science of Asking Questions

What’s the science behind asking questions? Researchers at Harvard University, including Balto’s research partner Alison Wood Brooks, identified a robust and replicable relationship between question-asking and “liking” during one-on-one conversations: those who asked more questions, particularly follow-up questions, were better liked by their conversation partners.

This “liking” emerges out of a perception of responsiveness, which means that someone is actively listening, understanding, and validating what a speaker is saying.

In their research, speed daters who used the most follow-up questions were the most likely to get a second date. It wasn’t about looks, shared backgrounds, or their sense of humor; it was about how well they listened and responded to their date.

Extend the metaphor to sales: it’s not about the product and what it does, it’s about understanding your prospect’s pain points, and asking follow-up questions to show that you care about finding them a solution. If you can do this, they’ll like you more. It’s scientifically proven.

Questions are magic and do great things. They’re how we come to like and know each other. You’re more likable if you ask questions because it shows you care to understand what someone is thinking. In the context of negotiation, we know that asking open-ended questions helps us learn more about your counterpart and what their motivations are. The power of questions is at its best when the person you’re asking feels that the questions are backed by curiosity and care.”

Professor Alison Wood Brooks

What the Data Says About Asking Questions

Research from speed dating is intriguing, but what about data for contact centers? By looking at the data from over 170 million calls, the Balto Real-Time Index analyzes the rate of question-asking and other soft skills across industries and use cases.

The fact is, you can’t ask strong questions if you aren’t listening actively, and active listening was an underutilized soft skill across every single industry covered by the Index.

In the healthcare industry, for example, active listening was only used 0.03 times per call on average — or on one out of every thirty calls. In B2B technology, active listening was only used 0.045 times per call. Commonly used soft skills in the B2B technology industry, for comparison, include respect (used 6.25 times per call), proactivity (5.59 times per call), and justification (4.74 times per call). The industry with the lowest prevalence of agent active listening was home improvement at 0.17 instances per call.

The Balto Real-Time Index defines active listening as times when an agent repeats, reiterates, or confirms what a prospect is saying. This shows care, understanding, validation, and responsiveness, and in turn allows the agent to ask the appropriate follow-up questions to make the most out of a conversation.

How to Encourage Asking Questions on Calls

If question asking is so powerful, why is it so underutilized on actual calls? Here are some common reasons why agents may not ask questions:

  • They have a long or prescriptive script and they need to make sure they have time to cover all of the information they need to convey
  • They get nervous and cannot think of an appropriate and generative question to further the conversation
  • They don’t understand your product or service enough to try to contextualize it into your prospect’s pain points
  • They don’t see the value of question-asking
  • They have already decided that a given call is not going anywhere
  • They have not received formal training on the power of question-asking in sales

Here are a few powerful interventions:

  1. Incentivize question-asking. Use a call analysis tool to capture and report on how often question-asking occurs and create a leaderboard to celebrate your most inquisitive agents.
  2. Build flexibility into your script. While a script should provide agents with a general roadmap and make sure that they cover any compliance statements, it shouldn’t preclude them from having the space to ask questions.
  3. Create formal training to encourage question-asking. Ask agents to role play scenarios and have them try to respond to the customer or prospect only with questions.

You can also share the research on question-asking with your agents, directly from the researcher themselves — or we’ll synthesize that research for you. Subscribe to the Conversation Excellence Lab newsletter for regular industry insights from us and our research partners.