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Questioning Skills- Part 4: The Art of Asking For Trouble

Sooner or later, every consultative salesperson gets into this daunting position: the client question we most need to ask is the question we least want to ask. Usually, our worry is that the client may suspect the motive behind our question, and/or may fear the personal consequences of responding frankly (e.g., may feel embarrassed, “invaded,” manipulated, pressured to reveal confidences, etc.). Even so, we sometimes need to ask “tough questions” in order to do our job properly. Here’s a technique for walking that tightrope.

Our dialog tool is called a “pre-question statement.” Always precede a potentially tough question with a preamble that either explains your business reason for asking the question, or offers a client benefit from answering it. (Including both would be even better, but that’s not mandatory.) Ultimately, your goal is to assure that your client doesn’t “take the question personally,” but rather recognizes your objective, professional need to ask it.

An example: “Who will make the decisions on this project?” is often a tough question; it could be taken as doubting the client’s authority. Your pre-question statement might sound something like this: “No two client organizations make decisions the same way; in fact, the process may change from project to project. In order to save you and your company time and avoid wheel-spinning, and to make sure the right people are in the loop and not harassed by it, can you tell me who will make the decisions on this project?

Here, the first sentence states the “business reason-why” (showing that we’re experienced pros), and the second sentence offers (several) “client benefits” resulting from answering our question straightforwardly.

  • You don’t have to anticipate and address the potentially upsetting client inference. Indeed, that approach would be very risky: if you guess wrong, you not only fail to assuage the client’s real fear— you also risk creating a new worry that hadn’t existed until you brought it up!
  • Don’t worry if the preamble seems long-winded; your client isn’t doing a word count. Anyway, you shouldn’t use pre-question statements often; they’re only for those questions that might raise red flags.
  • If you’re asking a presumably harmless question but the client signals a negative reaction, segue into a pre-question statementafter the questionwithout pausing for an answer. Maybe you can make a last-minute save.
  • Important: don’t be disconcerted by agonizing over your pre-question statement; it doesn’t have to be a brilliantly rationalized and articulated setup for your question. All it has to do is be solidly “business-like” and emotionally neutral, so as to nip the client’s wrong inferences in the bud.

Handle those “tough questions” like everything else in your client dialogs: tell the client why you’re doing what you’re doing, and signal how he/she will benefit from cooperating fully.

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