What Questions Reveal (Issue 837)

In which we are encouraged to interpret the patterns of our prospects’ and clients’ questions and probe for their ultimate outcomes.

The reality of the other person lies not in what he reveals to you but in what he cannot reveal to you. Therefore, if you would understand him, listen not to what he says but rather to what he does not say.

  • Kahlil Gibran, Lebanese-American artist, philosopher and writer, “The Prophet” (1923)


I was sitting at my desk, just beginning a conversation with a prospective client about changes in his company’s sales methods. I earned this conversation through an earlier discussion with one of his team members. The boss had more questions.

He opened, saying: “I wonder if you could summarize the previous discussion for me.”

“Sure,” I thought, half suspecting that he was playing with me. His colleague had briefed him, yes? Never mind, I recapped the two main threads in the preceding conversation.

He then began working me through a series of issues which I, delighted to be engaged on this subject, answered energetically and at some length. The conversation had an even, comforting rhythm like a baseline tennis rally –stroke, return, stroke, return, stroke, return – with me answering each question, one at a time, as it was asked.

As he asked and I started to answer the sixth question, I thought: “Yikes!!!!! Wake up!!!! Write down his questions!!!”

“Hold on a moment, I’m thinking,” I said, furiously writing shorthand versions of questions 1 – 6.

The questions he’d asked pointed toward pricing discipline and pipeline leaks. The questions he had NOT asked suggested he was focused on addressing the current, “hot” problems, like handing specific objections, rather than thinking about more strategic or enterprise issues that could reduce the frequency and severity of the problems he was seeing immediately in front of him. Good to know.

Somewhere along the line I learned (and remembered too late to be helpful in this discussion): When clients or prospects ask questions to evaluate us, record the sequence and wording of their questions, interpret the pattern – what they reveal and don’t reveal, and then clarify their goals, beginning with a question like, “Pat, thanks for these good questions and I’m wondering…. What’s the ultimate outcome you want to produce?”

Most times, I’ve discovered, clients or prospects are asking questions because they have in mind a problem and a way they want to solve the problem and they’re asking us questions to see whether we “fit,’ whether we can solve the problem the way they’ve already thought to solve the problem.

Many times, we may not “fit”. However, once we know the outcome they’re seeking and what’s important to them (by evaluating the questions they ask), we’re free to suggest other strategies that may be better for them and may be better for us.

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