Leading the Witness (Issue 484)

In which we distinguish between open questions and leading the witness with questions that bias or restrict the information we hear from clients.

As experienced sales people, we would ALL say that we ask open questions to learn about our clients, right?

Recently, I visited with a prospective client. First visit for me. We’d become comfortable with each other through our telephone conversations and I felt both excited about our planned discussion and at ease as I sat down in her office. Glancing around, I noticed several family pictures on a nearby bookcase including a portrait of two boys together. I said, “They’re handsome. Are they your sons?”

“No,” she replied, smiling and gracious, “they’re my grandsons.”

“Very nice,” I replied, quietly squelching the accusatory voice in my head that called to me.

Rewind the scene and imagine a different outcome. I sit down, I see the pictures, and I say, “They’re handsome. Who are they?”

Her answer might then have been something like, “They’re my grandsons. This one is Bob. That’s Charlie. They’re six and eight years old, and full of energy. They are a hoot! I’m a proud granny!”

Different, right? (A good answer here would be, “yes.”)

Segue to a different scene. In this one, yours truly (the handsome, balding entrepreneur – TA DA!) is the customer, sitting in a bank branch, speaking with a small business banker about our banking situation. She says, “So what is not quite the way you like it in your current banking relationship with Bank S – not good service, branch not convenient, rates not right?”

I replied, “Well, not exactly. While it’s true that our current branch doesn’t have the expertise on site that we think we need, we’ve just grown to the point …. blah, blah, blah.” I almost felt like I was defending myself.

Rewind the scene and imagine a different outcome. I sit down, we start speaking, and she asks, “So how have things gone with your current banking relationship?” …… and STOPS TALKING.

Different outcome again, yes?

In both cases, the questioner “led the witness,” embedding an expected answer in the question, changing what could have been an open question (drawing out information) to a closed question (confirming information).

To ask truly open questions, we phrase questions neutrally without including potential answers.

For example, contrast, “How was your day?” with “Did you have a challenging day?” The first is an open question; the second leads the witness.

Contrast, “How has your sales force been performing?” with “Has your sales force been performing well?” The first is an open question, seeking information; the second leads the witness.

And contrast, “How do you ask questions?” with, “Do you ask primarily open questions?” Again, the first question is an “open question” (seeking information in an unbiased way) and the second is closed (leading the witness).

Clients can hear the difference, just as I could when I was the prospective client for the bank. When a sales person asks a witness-leading question, client tail feathers and antennae go up; we’re ready to protect and defend and object because we have learned that what comes next is a pitch. So, we start objecting early. And, we give shorter, more direct answers because the witness-leading questions limit the scope of our replies.

There are many times in conversation that we want to ask questions that are closed or confirming, when we want a “yes” or “no” or specific answer. The trick is to keep them straight, use them strategically, and not lead the witness when we want information.

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