Scenario Selling How to Identify Needs Faster and Easier

Questioning prospects for key motivators like “points of pain” can be challenging and difficult from two perspectives.

First, in the early stages of selling, not all sales reps are comfortable asking sensitive questions about problems or concerns. They either ignore them or botch them completely.

Second, in the early stages of selling, not all prospects are comfortable about opening up their soul and revealing their areas of pain. They skirt the issue or dismiss it completely.

While both these challenges can be overcome with time and effort, there is technique that can speed up the process. It is called “scenario selling.”  It can help you get to the meatier issues of “pain” in less time which means more sales for you.

Why Prospects Don’t Open Up Immediately

When you probe for needs the majority of prospects are usually reluctant to divulge areas of pain.  This is understandable: the prospect does not know you and may not know your company.  You are a stranger and there is a natural hesitancy for them to open up the flood gates and spill all their issues onto you lap.

At another level, some prospects don’t really want to admit to anyone that they have a pressing problem.  It’s often seen as a private issue and some actually think it reflects on them personally. Consequently, they keep their problems (or opportunities) hidden; almost as if they are “embarrassed” to admit them.

Why Sales Reps Don’t Ask Painful Questions

The problem with effective questioning is compounded by the sale reps themselves. Sales reps, particularly those who are new and inexperienced, are often reluctant to ask prospects ‘tough’ questions about problems or concerns.  While they have been told to do so, many sales reps learn that the prospect shuts them down with curt answers.  For example, I recently heard a rep pointedly ask a prospect, “So do you have any challenges in your business?”  Not surprisingly, the prospect bluntly replied “no.” Responses like this intimidate reps to the point that they avoid asking tougher questions and never get down to the heart of what concerns a prospect.

Of course, some sales reps are not intimidated in the least about asking sensitive questions.  But unfortunately, some wield the questions like a club and smash the client with it. For instance, “So, Ms. Bixbi, to get started: do you have any cash problems?” Questions like this catch the prospect completely off guard.

Scenario Selling

Scenario selling is a process that makes it easier for sales reps to ask tougher questions and makes it easier for the prospect to respond.  Scenario selling is nothing more than a method of questioning for areas of pain or gain by creating a “scenario” that describes a situation or event and then determining if it applies to the prospect.  Here are a few examples that illustrate the point:

“Ms. Bixbi, much of our research with our clients shows that cash flow is sometimes an issue particularly with the fluctuating price of oil.  Let me ask you, what has been your experience with cash flow over the last year or so?”

“Anne, sometimes at our seminars, we hear that collecting overdue accounts is sometimes a challenge particularly with clients who have been long time customers.  Tell me, what has been your experience with collections over the last few months?”

“Mr. Edgerton, one of the things we’ve learned with new practices is that marketing their services is a challenge if only because the owners are doctors and not marketers. Let me ask: what has been your approach to marketing and what type of results have you been experiencing?”

“Scott, we are getting more and more feedback from IT Directors and managers from large corporations regarding the misuse licensing agreement. It’s creating some concerns about compliance. Let me ask you: what has been your experience with this so far?”

“Chris, one of the things we are seeing in the market today is the growing frustration of investors to get a reasonable return on investment and this is impacting their retirement strategies. Let me ask, what has your experience been on ROI over the last year or two?”

How it Works: 2 Parts

You can see that scenario selling is formulaic and divided into two parts. First, in each of these examples, the sales rep broached the problem/concern/pain area by prefacing it with a statement or a story that describes a specific situation experience by other. In effect, the rep creates a scenario as a pre-text to asking a sensitive question.

Next, the rep uses an open ended trigger phrase (e.g., “what has been your experience”) that invites the prospect to elaborate. This is important because a closed ended question can still shut down the prospect. Once the prospect begins to open up, the sales rep can probe further and deeper if required.

Why It Works

Scenario selling works at two levels. For the prospect, scenario selling works very well because it is based on the principle of “misery loves company.”  When you describe a situation that others are experiencing, the prospect doesn’t feel quite so alone and conscious of his or her dilemma.  This makes it easier for the prospect to open it because he doesn’t feel ‘on the spot’.  Your scenario is almost hypothetical in nature so the prospect feels a bit removed and a bit more objective.  In effect, it’s “okay” to “sort of” acknowledge a similar pain.

For the sales rep, scenario selling makes broaching awkward topics a little easier. It is not such a blatant approach to dealing with topics that might be sensitive or delicate in the mind of the client. It eases the sales rep into deeper question; a wedge in the door


Scenario selling is not required for all situations. If you sell office products you probably don’t have to create a scenario. However, the more complex and sensitive an issue, the more you should consider this technique.

Here’s how you get started: sit down with your manager or fellow reps and identify the points of pain that your product or service can fix, solve, and reduce or whatever. Develop a scenario or two that highlights the points of pain. Script it so that it effective. Then practice it.  Then practice it some more so that it flows naturally. Finally, deliver it and watch the impact it has on your sales results.

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