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

by David Brock on January 19th, 2011

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.

What’s your questioning strategy?  Do you ask questions to learn and discovery?  Do you ask questions, knowing the response?  Which do you find most impactful?

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10 Comments
  1. Hey Dave,

    It all depends on what your are looking for. If you are trying to “trick” the customer into buying your service, getting them to say the words you want them to is a way to get the sale.

    But if you really want to help the customer and provide real value, you need to know the truth, not just the version you believe in. Asking questions you do not know the answer to is the key.

    //Daniel

    • Good point Daniel! Later in the sales cycle, we may be asking more questions that we know the answer to—reconfirming customer needs, attitudes and priorities.

  2. Great article! I agree with you sales are won or lost typically in discovery. Too much of sales training today is focused on “closing” and not on the discovery process.

    Ryan Alex

  3. David, this post does a superlative job of defining manipulation, its eventual failure, and a win-win alternative.

    • Aw Shucks Gary, thank you! Actually, the reactions have been interesting. In Linkedin, many have just read the title and declared me a heretic, they haven’t taken a look at the article. Interesting……

  4. Mohamed Saad permalink

    David, thanks for the time and effort you are putting in sharing your thoughts…..i totally agree with you and i believe the best type of questions during ground floor sales is those that both the sales guy and the customer have no answers to….of course in the context of the sale, will lead both parties to actually do proper qualifying

  5. Rob Keeney permalink

    Great article, Dave! I couldn’t agree more. Selling is not litigating, especially the trial aspect. The true discovery phase in litigation occurs prior to trial. Great salespeople allow themselves to truly hear what their customer wants to tell them, even if it may not conform to their agenda. They allow the interview to ‘go where it needs to go’, not where they want it to go, or where they thought it would go.

    • Rob, thanks for joining the discussion, I couldn’t agree more. Somehow though, too fiew sales people do this. If they did, they would discover that selling and connecting with their customers would be so much easier. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

      Thanks also for the great questions and discussion on yesterday’s FSI call! Hope to see you in future calls and joining our community! Regards, Dave

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