The Worst Question a Salesperson Could Ever Ask

As an enthusiastic student of the sales profession for over 25 years, I have read several hundred books and untold numbers of articles on selling. One thing that I find frustrating is how often really BAD advice is passed along that actually hurts the reader more than it helps.

I recently read an article in which the writer was trying to help the reader appreciate the importance of better understanding the people involved in their customer’s buying process. In my opinion, once you’ve qualified a prospective client thoroughly enough to determine that there, in fact, “is” as viable sales opportunity, I can’t think of anything more important than understanding the people and the steps involved in their buying process. But we need to learn to ask questions about their buying process without alienating the very people we are trying to build a trust-based relationship with.

The writer of the article mentioned above suggested, “Here’s a question we should always ask the customer . . . Is there anyone else besides yourself who will be involved with this purchasing decision?” That might sound good in a book or a training workshop, but it simply doesn’t work. I’ve even read many authors who recommend asking, “Who’s the final decision maker?” The problem is asking a question like that causes your prospective client to become defensive. They typically respond with something like, “I’m the only person you need to worry about.” Honestly, we might as well have come right out and said, “You clearly don’t have the juice to make this decision. So who else should I be talking to who is actually important?”

Over the years I have actually developed quite a pet peeve about the use of the term “decision maker.” Any time you deal with multiple people that are involved in a buying process, they all seem to think (or perhaps they need to think) that whatever portion of the overall buying process they are responsible for is THE decision. The technical approver is making the technical decision. The financial approver is making the financial decision. The purchasing agent is making the purchasing decision. Or so they need to believe.

Whether the person you are dealing with is, in fact, the final approver, or they’re simply a recommender (i.e., making a preliminary selection to recommend to his or her superior) they almost always think that they are making THE decision! We should allow whoever we are dealing with to feel that they are the decision maker. But make sure to find out what else has to happen throughout the remainder of the buying process as well.

A better question to ask your client is, “Once you make your decision. What happens then?” If they tell you, “I’m the final decision maker.” Follow with, “Excellent! What other things will need to happen before you make your final decision?” Once you understand their process, then ask, “Once you make your final decision what will happen then?” This question almost always reveals who else and what else is involved.

Every person who plays a role in your customer’s buying process is important. In fact, any one of them could mean the difference between closing the deal or not. Try to understand the various people that play a role in the process and try to meet (or at least speak on the phone) with as many of these players as you can. But as you ask your questions about who and what is involved, make sure you ask in a way that communicates that you respect each person’s particular role and their contribution to the overall decision-making process.