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Questions We’re Afraid To Ask

by David Brock on May 13th, 2013

We all have them, Questions We’re Afraid To Ask.  They’re obvious, but we’re afraid to ask them.  Will we offend the customer?  Will they make us look stupid?  Are we afraid of the answer we might get?

Not asking these questions are what holds us back.  Usually, they involve a root issue–not asking them holds us back.  We may be chasing a bad opportunity, we may be missing something fundamental, we may be making an error, we may not be contributing in the most important way possible.  Almost always, the question is obvious.  It’s staring us in the face, we know it’s the question we have to ask, but we are afraid to.

It’s amazing, when we finally screw up the courage to ask the question, how much it opens things up.  It clears the air, it’s immediately freeing–we can now talk about what’s really important, we’ve removed that block that’s stood between us, the customer, and moving forward.

I see these questions every time I do a review with someone.  They never bring up the question, they talk about everything except the question.  When I ask them about it, the response is, “Can I really ask that question?”

Here are some that I’ve encountered:

“Do you have a real need to buy?”  Actually, this is my shorthand, it’s almost never posed this way.  In qualification and actually through the sales process it keeps popping up.  We’ve engaged a customer, they seem interested in talking to us, they seem interested in learning and getting information–but things don’t move forward.  It just seems to be one nice conversation after another.  We suspect they may not be doing anything, at least soon.  We begin to wonder what it takes to move the deal forward, when they are going to buy.  We have them in our pipeline, we dutifully updated CRM and review things with our manager.  We strategize getting them to move forward.  How do we create that compelling event of reason to get them to make a decision.  When what we really need to do is ask them, “Do you have a real need to buy?”

We’re afraid to ask that question, particularly later in the sales cycle.  We’re afraid of the answer–it might be, “No.”  We’ve invested a lot of time in the customer, they have invested time in us.  We will pursue a deal forever, rather than face a thoughtful discussion that might end up with, “Now that we talk about it, we really don’t have a compelling need to buy right now.”

“Why would you possibly be interested in doing business with us?”  I encounter this often.  Typically, there is an incumbent competitor.  They have served the customer well.  They have a strong offering, the customer seems happy, or at least we have  never asked.  Or we may be a small player competing against a much larger and very capable competitor.  We have good meetings with the customer, but something just doesn’t seem right.  In our deepest thoughts, we wonder, “Why would they possibly want to do business with us?”  When we are honest with ourselves, we think if we were in their shoes, we wouldn’t change from the current vendors—the risks are too high, the costs are too much, there just isn’t a compelling reason.

We’re afraid to ask that question, because, they might say, “You know you are right.  There is no reason to change.”  On the other hand, we have the opportunity to learn where they are really concerned, what they are really unhappy with, why they want to consider changing, why they want to look at buying from us.  Years ago, I was working with a team on a very large deal.  They had the opportunity to displace an incumbent vendor.  The customer had $100’s of millions invested—between systems, programming, process changes, and so forth.  The decision maker was the keynote speaker at the upcoming user group meeting.

In our internal planning session, I posed the question, “Why would the consider changing?”  The response was, “We don’t know, but they are talking to us, let’s not rock the boat!”  I persisted, saying that it really didn’t make sense to change–as good as my client’s solutions were, putting myself in the customer’s shoes, based on what we knew, a change just didn’t make sense.

In the end, they invited me to accompany them on a call on the decision maker.  Eventually, I posed the question.  The flood gates opened.  It turns out the customer was very unhappy, but the team didn’t know because they never asked the obvious question.  Once the customer was given the opportunity to talk, he told them precisely how to win the business–which they ultimately achieved.

Many years ago, we won a huge piece of business, competing with a very large, well known consulting firm.  I was so thankful in getting the business, but was afraid to ask “why did you choose us?”  Eventually, I had the courage to ask this.  The response startled me.  It wasn’t what I expected, but the single thing that caused us to win that business has become a cornerstone to our business and success.  Had I never asked the question, I wouldn’t have learned something that has been key to our growth and differentiation for the past 10 years.

There are many other questions we are afraid to ask:

  • What did we do wrong?  Why did we lose your business?
  • What could we do better or differently?
  • What should we change?
  • Do we make a difference?  Have we delivered to your expectations?

We’re often afraid to ask the important, obvious questions, so we never do.  We move forward, blindly, hopefully.  We don’t ask, often because we are afraid of the answer.  But when we do, there is immediate clarity.  There is a path forward.  While we may not like the answers we get, we can take action.  If we ask the question, “Do you really have a need to buy,” and the answer is “No,” we can stop wasting our time and the customer’s.  If we ask, “Why would you ever consider buying from us,” and they say, “You know, you’re right, we really shouldn’t change at this time.”  We stop wasting our time and the customer’s.

Without asking these tough questions, we tend to fool ourselves.  Without being asked these tough questions, the customers may be fooling themselves as well.  Asking, answering, discussing these tough questions brings great clarity and simplifies everything.

Think about those tough deals that are stalled.  What is the question you are afraid to ask?  Go ask it immediately.  The answer, good or bad is the answer you need to move forward.

What are the questions you are afraid to ask?  I’d love to learn.

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2 Comments
  1. Johanne Ibsen-Wolford permalink

    So true, especially at the beginning of my sales career. However, it’s much easier to ask the questions post-mortem, than doing DURING the sales cycle. Thank you for reminding us to do these common sense, essential tactics!

    • Johanne, it’s good to see you here. It’s so much more important to ask these questions during the sales cycle rather than in the post-mortem–they can change post-mortems into win reviews.

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