Boost Your Income by Asking the Right Questions

Major League Baseball manager Tommy Lasorda said, “No matter how good you are, you're going to lose one-third of your games. No matter how bad you are, you're going to win one-third of your games. It's the other third that makes the difference.”

Selling your copywriting services is just like baseball. About a third of the time, no matter what, you are going to win that new client. A third of the time, no matter how good you are, you’re not going to get the client. But … it’s what you do with that other third that will give you consistent business and a higher income.

Author and sales expert Jeffrey Gitomer says, “The most important aspect of making a sale is asking questions.”

If you get the appointment but aren’t closing as many of the deals as you’d like, the place to start is to evaluate the questions you are asking.

The questions you ask can make or break a sale because the more thought-provoking your questions are, the more your prospects will respect you. The more they respect you, the more likely they are to provide you with truthful answers and insight about the key elements in what they are trying to accomplish. By understanding what they truly want to accomplish, you have a better chance of delivering what will determine you winning the business.

Gitomer says, “Your questions are a critical element in how your customer perceives you.” If you ask intelligent and engaging questions, your prospects will consider you valuable. If you don’t put a lot of thought into the questions you are asking, then you are perceived as having little value. When you aren’t perceived as valuable, then the only thing you are competing on is price and that is never a winning battle.

Not only are questions important for closing the sale, but they are also important in determining where you fit into a client’s business. The more valuable you are, the more consistent and higher your income will be from clients.

Corporate sales trainer Stephan Schiffman says in his book, Closing Technique, that you will be “assigned one of four roles” when dealing with your prospects and customers.

He says the first three roles, vendor, supplier, and entrenched supplier, are what many settle for, but the last one, the role of partner, is where you will close the "other third" of the business and bump your income.

What will improve your status and move you up the ladder in these roles?

Schiffman says it’s by asking smart questions.

To understand these different roles so you can evaluate where you are with your clients, here are the definitions of each role:

  • Vendors take orders and usually do one project because they happened to be available and had the right budget at the time the company needed a copywriter.
  • Suppliers are hired to do a copywriting project, do a good job, and are put on a list of freelance copywriters the company uses, but only have a relationship with the marketing director and no one else. This means you most likely won’t be on the list if the marketing director is let go or leaves the company.
  • Entrenched suppliers do a great job, have a relationship with someone higher up, but not the top decision maker. The risk here is that the real decision maker can decide not to use your service, and because you don’t have a relationship, there’s nothing you can do.
  • Partner is the role you want to aim for. Partners work with the top people in the organization. They are usually the sole provider or the go-to provider for the client. They are a constant source of ideas. They develop new ways to help their client solve problems and make more money. They are part of the planning process.

While you can’t expect to turn every relationship into a partnership, by asking the right questions, you can move yourself along the path from the vendor status towards the role of a partner, which helps to solidify a steady stream of projects and income and usually means you can charge more too.

Here are six tips on how to ask better questions to close more sales and move towards the partner role:

Ask powerful questions. It’s not just about asking questions, but asking the right questions. A sale can be won or lost based on the questions you ask. By looking at the wording of the questions you’re asking, you can improve your close ratio and win more sales.

Think about it. The first question you should ask is a rapport question. This sets the tone of the meeting and can go a long way to your prospect liking you. The first business question sets up the tone for the sale.

Make a list of 25 of the most powerful questions you can create. Challenge yourself to come up with questions that your competitors aren’t asking and make people say, “No one ever asked me that before.”

Tip: The secret to good questions is to create and ask compelling questions that make the prospect think before giving a response and respond in terms of their own interest.

Write down your own list of questions in advance and practice them. Develop a list with questions that “uncover needs, problems, pains, concerns, and objections,” and a second list that “create prospect commitment as a result of the information uncovered.”

To get you started, I’ve given you some examples of power questions you could ask:

  • How many of your promotions didn’t work last year?
  • Why? (What was the major cause?)
  • What plans have you made to ensure that your promotions will work this year?
  • What marketing material do you have in place to support your sales staff’s efforts?
  • How much marketing did you budget for last year?
  • How much do you wish you’d budgeted for?
  • When you do a marketing campaign, how do you measure each individual marketing effort?
  • If you could order the results for your next campaign, what would they be?
  • What would you change about your results from your current campaign/website/promotion?
  • What does your competitor do about ____?
  • What have you found to be the most successful marketing avenue for you?
  • What have you found to be the least successful marketing avenue for you?
  • What makes you choose_____?

Use smart words. You should avoid certain questions and words so you don’t appear unintelligent. You’ll want to stay away from asking questions that pry into matters that a prospect might consider none of your business or that ask about information you should have uncovered in your own research. For example, don’t ask what they are currently paying for copywriting services or for your prospect to tell you a little bit about their business. One of the worst questions to ask is if they are the person who makes the decisions because people usually say yes when that’s usually not true. A more accurate question to ask is, “How will the decision be made?”

The words “quote” and “bid” are price-driven words, which means if you use them, you are asking to compete on price and looking to give the lowest “bid.” Instead of asking whether you can provide a quote or bid on a project, use value words. For instance, you might say, “I’d like to develop some ideas about how your organization can benefit from what I have to offer.” Avoid the use of negative words that will put your prospect's guard up. For example, avoid using the words, “frankly,” “honestly,” and "If I were you.”

Tip: Avoid saying anything negative about your prospect’s previous or current copy or anything negative about a business that might be competing against you for their business.

Ask questions based on an idea. When you bring in an idea that you get from reading a marketing piece the company put out, you will increase your credibility. And you don’t have to worry so much about asking a dumb question when you say you were looking at their promotional material and have some ideas. Just say something like, “I was looking at your promotion for XYZ product last night and I had a couple of ideas I’d like to talk to you about. But before I do, I’d like to ask you some questions so I can better understand how your product works.”

Ask for their wisdom. Buyers don’t like to be educated; they want answers. Instead of giving them your wisdom, buyers will like you a whole lot more when you ask for their wisdom. By asking for your customer’s experience with something, you encourage your prospect to share their wisdom instead of just sharing information.

Listen and write down answers. Most people are so focused on selling their product or service that they forget to listen. Be observant and listen to your prospect. If there is something unusual that seems relevant or a part of the equation, ask about it. Don’t be in a rush to tell your prospect how you can help them. Listen first. Ask smart questions based on what they say. And write down all of their answers. Writing down answers shows you are interested. Plus, the information will help you put together a winning proposal with the key points. You can also include your prospect’s own words in your proposal when you do this—which is very effective.

By evaluating the questions you ask and making a healthy list of good power questions that generate interest, you’ll get to the heart of your prospect’s problem quickly without them feeling like you are pushing for a sale.

When you start asking better questions, you’ll find you are winning more of your prospects over to customers without having to compete on price because you’ll have earned more respect and appear more valuable than your competitors. When you’re more valuable, you are more likely to move up the rank in importance and be a part of planning the projects instead of being an order taker. And when you are a part of creating the strategy, you’ll make more money.

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Published: June 30, 2011

10 Responses to “Boost Your Income by Asking the Right Questions”

  1. VERY helpful, Cindy!

    I'm wondering if there is potential for another AWAI info product here, by expanding on this subject/going into greater depth, with a B2C section AND a B2B section...

    Guest (Rombas)

  2. Cindy,

    I'd like to think that many AWAI-trained copywriters (be they B2C or B2C) would use/adapt such a list if AWAI provided it.

    It's possible that there isn't enough meat to put together a useful info product: IF that's the case, perhaps you (or someone else) could draw up 2 such lists (again, 1 for B2B, the other for B2C)?


    Guest (Rombas)

  3. Great Job Cindy!

    You're right about everything in this article. I love how it's jammed pack with great info.

    First and foremost, you can never please all of the people, and baseball was a great example on that.

    Second, great questions are what separate you from the rest. They're a MUST!

    Last but not least, LISTEN, that's why we have two ears and one mouth! You have to REALLY LISTEN to your client and what they are saying. Clients want to know that you understand their needs.


    Guest (Tonimarie Marrese)

  4. Cindy, this is so helpful and so timely. These are the details I have struggled with, and it's just so helpful to have this input. I love the idea of some sort of product or idea generator for the lists. I agree that most of us at AWAI are devouring whatever we can get our hands on to help expedite the process. For those of us who don't have any sort of sales background, anything is so helpful. I really appreciate this article.

    Guest (Cyndee D)

  5. Thanks for the article, Cindy. Cyndee D took the words out of my mouth, even if it was a couple years ago, the rules still apply today.

    Dan G

  6. Hi Cindy. This article has given me some great pointers but I have a question, the answer to which could be blindingly obvious. Are you assuming in the article that writers are face to face with their prospective client? What is the thinking on asking questions by phone or email? I ask because I live in New Zealand and my intention is to make the world my market place. I'd be pleased to hear your thoughts. Thanks.

    Guest (Norah Jansen)

  7. Greetings Cindy,

    I am very new to the world of copyrighting,(beginning stages)but this article makes a lot of sense which seems to solidify the legitimacy of this program. Good stuff, well written, and coherent. This is to say that even a tenderfoot such as myself can truly devour and digest the message. Hello brain! Time for some questions.

    George O

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