Including method for using questions to guide the purchase processP1070688-3

By Ger van den Buijs -FiveDOLPHINS
The Question is a sales method that is widely used in Retail. Check for instance the work of Chet Holmes. I will use several of his strategies in this article.

In E-commerce however, asking questions is rarely used. Internet blogs on digital marketing and E-commerce hardly touch the topic. I think it’s time to change that. As competion within E-commerce is getting more fierce, The Question could be a perfect instrument for differentiation.

In this article I will take a customer perspective. Improving the online purchasing experience for customers is the central theme in the mission of FiveDOLPINS. We believe that realizing a great purchasing experience for your customer will generate very valuable Word of Mouth. Some research even suggests that Word of Mouth has more value than an expensive marketing campaign.

Please complete the following scentence:

The best sales question is a question that . . . .

Later in this article I will complete this scentence with my ultimate sales question, but I am very much interested to know your answer before you read this article. I would be greatful if you would share your view with me.

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Before we take off, I would like to take a moment to go into the four reasons why a customer will not buy from you.

  1. He is not interested in your product. You are trying to sell meat to a vegetarian.
  2. He doesn’t have the budget.
  3. He doesn’t trust you.
  4. He doesn’t think your product has (enough) value to him.

The first two are hard to handle. You better move your focus to people who are real prospects. We don’t deal with these reasons in this article. With reasons 3 and 4 The Question Strategy can be very valuable. That is what we focus on in this article. The next paragraphs will present you how you can use questions to help your customer effectively through his purchasing process.


Pre-orientation phase

The customer is at this moment not yet aware of his need for your product and/or you as a vendor. In this situation the customer’s mind and agenda are overloaded with other topics. This is the time for marketing to attract the customer’s attention with a spark or a short simple message. A question will not yet be productive. It is too complex, too time consuming. Only when the customer decides to direct his attention to you, the game begins.

Orientation Phase

1 Trust questions

Binocular - Gerlos

At the moment a potential customer is in your shop or social media area, he shows at least a slight interest in you and your product. Still keeping a distance, he is scanning options. Anything bad or troublesome is a reason to leave. Your customer will only allow you to ask questions, when you prove that you are willing to grant him your attention.

Listening is a great sales instrument and asking questions is a great instrument to start listening. But pay attention. Nothing is more killing than a rhetoric question, and you are not listening to the answer. You need to earn the confidence of the customer, so he allows you to ask further questions.

The first question(s) is thus merely meant to proof you can listen. Because you are just getting into the relation, you can’t get personal and you can’t sell yet. Your questions are not about you or your product.

Productive questions are about your customer and his journey to your shop. How did he get to know about you? Has he been here before? Does he already have similar products? What attracted him to take a look? Etc. Again, the main thing in this phase is to proof that you can listen.

2 Fact questions

When you have established some level of trust, the next step is to collect facts. Your customer isn’t interested in a general sales pitch. He wants you to respond to his situation, so he wants you to be interested in his facts. Only when you are willing to invest time to understand his situation, he will value your contribution later on. So you will need to ask what he is doing, how often, when, where and with whom, etc. All what is needed to understand the potential usage needs to be asked.

This might already lead to a first learning effect for your customer. Humans are a species of habits. By raising the questions you might open new options to him that were not yet part of his habits.

3 Need questions

The next step is to explore the needs of your customer. Most customers are only half aware of what they want. Their idea is often at too high a level. At other times they sound very focused on one product, but they did not really investigate whether other products would fit better.

Your questions will be very valuable when they lead your customer to considerations he did not even know he had to consider. You run the risk to overcomplicate the story for your customer. Be sure to focus on relevant situations for this person only.

However, when you raise questions that prevent the purchase of a wrong or sub-optimal product, you certainly contribute to your customers purchasing process. Ask him to share his needs and challenges.

For your customer to share this information, he needs to be convinced that you can advise him well. You need to mix the questions with your in depth market knowledge to earn that trust. Together you dive deeper into the case of your customer.

Selection phase

4 Value questions

Libra - Ulrich SchnellWhen the needs of your customer are clear, he feels ready to take the next step. Now your customer needs to weight the values of the different options.

This phase is more product oriented. During this phase you share a lot of information to your customer. What is crucial to make this phase successful are, however, not the specifications, but the value the customer attributes to these specifications.

To get your customer to weight values and speak out what things mean to him, questions are a great instrument. Open questions like “what would this mean to you” are very productive. They make all the difference. It is so much more powerful to have your customer explain the value to you, than you explaining the value to your customer.

The moment your customer expresses value to certain specifications of your product or service, you get an ideal opportunity to present killer market data. He will be all ears, when you give depth to the value he just expressed.

While sharing information, please keep in mind that you want to help your customer to limit the choice instead of broadening it. An overdose of options will freeze the customer in his action.

Closure phase

5 Objection questions

The next step is to resolve remaining doubts or blockades. Your customer is not able to act until the objections have been resolved. The only way to deal with these is face up. Persuade your customer to put them on the table. Questions are the best way to do that.

You start with questions that ask your customer to summarize for himself the previous phase, by raising questions like:

  • What value do you get from this product?
  • What does it cost you when you continue without this product?

The great thing about questions is that

anything sounds so much more convincing

when said by your customer than when said by you.

When your customer is still convinced your product has value, it’s time to help him solve his objection. In order to take this step, you want your customer to put his objection on the table, so you can isolate and resolve it.

  • What is standing between you and the purchase of this product?

6 Closing questions

No matter how well all the above steps have been done, there is still a high risk your customer will back out of the deal. Almost all customers feel hesitant to decide upon a deal that is sort of expensive with a long lasting effect. You will need to actively close the deal to earn their signature.

Signature - Rob King

The best type of questions you use in this phase are questions that assume the purchase has already taken place. Things like delivery address, fitting delivery dates, follow up service moment, etc are great topics to ask. Use labeling will be helpful. By addressing your customers as owners of the product, they will be more likely to act as such.

The process of asking questions helps closing the deal at a more subconscious level as well. From social psychological research it is known that people who fulfill small requests first will be more willing to fulfill larger requests later on. The fact that your customer has granted you his answers, will make it more likely he will grant you the deal as well.

Also the reciprocity trigger is very much pulled when you use The Question Strategy. You gave your customer your full attention, which he will want to return. Closing the deal becomes a natural next step.

Follow up

After closing the deal the follow up period starts. You want to keep your customer engaged to ensure his next purchase is with you again. It’s a well known fact that it is much easier to sell to a returned customer than to a new customer.

There are several ways to keep your customer engaged. Questions can play a very important role in building engagement. The first thing to do is ask feedback about your product after a period of usage. You can also ask questions to involve your customer in the development of your product, service or business. Their ideas and feedback will serve two objectives at the same time. Your company will realize a better proposition in the market and your customers will feel more connected to you.

How ?

By this time you probably ask yourself how one can do all this in E-commerce. It easy to see how this can be done in Retail and you probably recognize that it is very effective there. But in E-Commerce, can that be done?

I see three challenges. One is the high volume of visitors. Second is the platform to communicate. The third one is the relevance for each individual customer.

Asking questions and acting upon responses take real-time interaction. There is no way you can get the customer to open up when you can’t immediately respond. That requires a communication platform that is real-time. It also requires that answers and questions are grouped together into a conversation.

The second issue is the volume of visitors. How can you interact with all these people? Question is, do you really need to interact with each and everyone? Our vision is that the strategy will also work on people who are only watching a conversation. Like watching a movie, people will connect to the story and build the same trust. As long as the discussions are highly relevant, you can serve multiple customers at the same time.

What about the phasing, how can you ensure you communicate the right type of question? The communication platform has to be able to take that into account. This will be the hardest issue to handle, because there are so many options. Cookies are helpful, but people might have cleared them out. In our vision we have two answers to this:

  1. Use the personalized information available and the customer journey to get as close as possible to the true situation of each customer.
  2. Stimulate cross-customer discussion. Customer based content is getting more and more important. Research shows customers trust information from peers more than information from companies.

Base line is that you make sure customer is in control. Opt-in / Opt-out is essential. Limiting the number of communication items is also important to prevent irritation. Your customers are humans, not data processing engines.


At the start of this article I asked you for your ultimate sales question. Did it change while you were reading the article? I still owe you mine.

The best sales question is a question that

helps your customer right now

to make a next step in his purchasing process.

We have built FiveDOLPHINS with the above strategy in mind. It will fully support you when you want to use questions in your online sales strategy.
I want to conclude with an example company that puts listening and asking questions in the center of its strategy.


Some nice quotes from the Disney handbook are:

Relevance can only be achieve when listening to customers.

You have two ears, two eyes and one mouth, use them in that ratio.

You are always right when you are working on a customer’s request.

‘What time does the 3 o’clock parade start?’ is best answered with a question to understand what the customer really needs.

Disney is a company that handles large volumes of people daily. The Disney mission is to create a miracle experience for each and every visitorduring each and every moment of their stay. And they earn money doing that. Are you ready to take up that challenge in your online shop?

P1070701-1 40-60--20Thanks for reading my blog and I very much appreciate your feedback.


Ger van den Buijs
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With courtesy to Gerlos, Rob King, Ulrich Schnell and Flickr for the images.

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