Never Ask A Question If You Don’t Know The Answer

There’s the common saying in court room proceedings that a lawyer should never ask a witness a question unless they know the answer. Sometimes, I get the feeling sales people feel the same way.

Too often, it seems that sales people’s questioning strategies are not really oriented about discovering the customer’s needs, priorities, and requirements. Instead, they seem oriented to getting the customer to say a specific thing or respond in a specific manner.

Once the sales person hears the desired response, they launch into “the pitch.” Or possibly in reviewing the opportunity with a manager, the sales person says, “but the customer said this,” and it shapes our strategies, commitment of resources, and expectations.

In some sense this questioning strategy is the functional equivalent of hearing what we want to hear-not what is being said. And that’s where the problem comes in, this kind of questioning strategy cheats both the customer and the sales person. Discovery should truly be discovery. In discovery, our questioning strategies should be about discovery, not guiding the customer to an answer. As sales people we really need to discover the customer needs, requirements, priorities, and biases. Those responses help us qualify or disqualify the opportunity-we may decide this is not our deal to chase. The responses help us shape our next steps and our presentation of a solution. The responses enable us to present our capabilities in a manner that creates real value for the customer.

If we do anything else, ultimately both we and the customer are cheated. The customer feels manipulated. They can see the path we are taking them on in the questioning strategies. They know where it ends up. They get frustrated, wondering when the sales person really will listen to what they, the customers, really want to say. It cheats the sales person-sure we got the customer to say something, but it may not be really what they meant, so we are developing and executing our strategies based on mis-information, decreasing our ability to engage the customer and to move forward in the process.

Sometimes sales people spend too much time focusing on the answers, when we really need to focus on the questions. Sales are won and lost in the discovery process. Good discovery, good questioning enables the customer to lay out the road map. It enables the customer to tell us what we have to do to earn the business. Once the sales person understands that, they can focus on responding in ways that are meaningful or impactful to the customer.

By  John Hester

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