Inquiry as a Framework for Sales Leadership

There’s a traditional assumption that sales is all about telling. Inquiry as a framework for sales leadership starts by challenging that assumption. If you look at the best research on effective communication, listening is the most effective way to influence people. And yet most sales training programs have nothing to say about listening. Top-performing sales leaders nurture and cultivate a culture of inquiry. By doing so, sales leaders create a more effective and higher-quality sales process for themselves and their sales teams. By learning to lead through inquiry, sales leaders help their teams and customers move from a surface level of understanding to a place of critical thinking and discovery.

Developing a Reflective Sales Practice: We cultivate inquiry through a reflective practice that focuses on how we learn, how we communicate, and how we are perceived. Developing an inquiry practice starts with the question, “How do we learn?” Learning is a process that often happens through a messy and sometimes uncomfortable process of trying, failing, and then trying again. So how do we help salespeople to embrace this process? With this in mind, sales leaders can use the following ideas to cultivate a reflective practice that focuses on inquiry.

    • Focus on the customer – It’s tempting when facilitating a discussion to focus on the solution or our approach to the problem. But the best sales discussions are ones that focus on the customer.
    • Create a safe space for failure – Inquiry is a messy process, and the best way to learn is to allow for this messiness. Creating a safe space for failure means letting salespeople know that making mistakes is part of the process and that it’s okay to make mistakes because we all make mistakes.
    • Get out of the way – One of our most important roles as sales leaders is to get out of the way and let the discussion happen. The best conversations happen when salespeople talk to each other and not to us.
    • Stay curious – Curiosity is the best way to keep a discussion focused on the customer. It’s tempting to want to solve the customer’s problem or to jump to a solution, but being curious keeps the discussion focused on the customer.

Attitude of an Inquiry Salesperson: An inquiry salesperson cultivates a culture of curiosity and critical thinking. Through reflective practice, inquiry salespeople also model the dispositions of wonder, agency, and openness to their customers.

    • Wonder is the disposition that inspires curiosity and invites a sense of discovery. Inquiry sales leaders help cultivate a sense of wonder by creating a safe space for questions, making time for reflection, and prioritizing customer understanding. An inquiry salesperson also models the disposition of wonder by asking questions that spark curiosity.
    • Agency is the disposition that gives people the power and confidence to act. Inquiry sales leaders help cultivate a sense of agency by helping salespeople identify and develop their authentic voice. An inquiry salesperson also models agency disposition by expressing their needs and desires for the conversation.
    • Openness is the disposition that invites curiosity and critical thinking. Inquiry sales leaders help cultivate a sense of openness by modeling curiosity in how they lead discussions, reflect on the process, and ask questions. An inquiry salesperson also models the disposition of openness by staying curious and open to new ideas and thoughts.

Making the Sales Inquiry Process Visible

The best sales discussions don’t just spark a discovery for the customer but also for the salesperson. So how do sales leaders make the learning visible?

    • Create a culture of inquiry – When sales leaders create a culture of inquiry, it helps set the tone for the sales process. When information is shared and explored, the sales team has a better chance of uncovering insights that will help close more deals.
    • Cultivate a space for reflection – It’s tempting for sales teams to jump right into a discussion with a customer. But the best conversations are the ones that have time to breathe and be explored over time. So create a space where salespeople can reflect on the sales process and discuss how they approach each sales scenario.
    • Make the learning visible – One of the best ways to make the learning visible is to start a discussion about how the sales team learns. What are some of the ways the team learns best? What is the sales process like? How does the team go from discovery to discovery?

The Flow: One of the most significant benefits of leading with a lens of inquiry is its flow effect on the sales process. Sales is a process that often starts with a customer being stuck or struggling with a decision. If a salesperson is too quick to jump in with a solution, the customer may shut down their thinking and the sales conversation. But if the salesperson starts the discussion with a question designed to spark curiosity, the customer is likelier to open up and share their challenges and thoughts. And if the salesperson keeps their questions open-ended, the customer is expected to move to a place of critical thinking and discover their solution.

The Sales Inquiry Design Model: The sales inquiry design model is a framework that helps sales leaders design a better sales process. Conversation is the foundation of every sales process and how we choose to enter a customer’s world. It is important to choose the right approach to maximize your chances of success by asking the right questions. There are three parts to the sales inquiry process:

    • Curiosity – How do customers make decisions? What are their challenges or pain points? What do they want to accomplish? By starting a conversation with curiosity, you allow the customer to share where they are at in the decision-making process.
    • Open-ended questions – What are the customer’s needs and goals? What are their priorities? What would make their lives easier? Open-ended questions help uncover the customer’s needs and objectives and help to remove any assumptions you might have about what the customer is looking for.
    • Critical thinking – What would the ideal outcome look like for this customer? What solution would solve their challenges? What would be the best outcome for this customer? Critical thinking helps you go beyond asking questions and dig deeper by asking yourself what the answers mean.

Concluding with a Call to Action: Inquiry is a process that doesn’t happen in a single sales meeting. It is a way of thinking and being. So how do you help your sales team put this into practice?

    • Model the inquiry mindset: One of the most important ways you can help initiate change and action is by modeling the inquiry mindset. When you bring inquiry to your sales process, you inspire others to do the same.
    • Share best practices – The best way to help initiate change and action is to share best practices. So look for ways to share your insights by cultivating a culture of inquiry.
    • Hold others accountable – While sharing best practices is important, you must also hold others responsible for changing. Modeling the inquiry mindset and sharing best practices are great ways to initiate change. But it’s up to you to hold others accountable for making the change.

Lens of InquiryThe Table of Contents from the book Leading with a Lens of Inquiry: Cultivating Conditions for Curiosity and Empowering Agency by Jessica Vance (Amazon affiliate link: inspired this article. This is an outline of my thoughts before reading the book. The book is written for the educational field. I find the best literature for inquiry (outside of Appreciative Inquiry).