The Problem with Asking Questions in Sales

My wife is a fan of the TV show Biggest Loser – and according to the ratings numbers, she is not alone!   Seems millions of Americans tune in weekly to watch fitness experts Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper tone up and thin down teams of overweight contestants.

But that’s not all they see.

Biggest Loser was recently ranked number 1 in product placement activity.  If you’ve watched the show, you know they’re none too subtle with their endorsements.  Contestants who are fighting the temptation to snack aren’t encouraged to grab a stick of gum to stave off those hunger pangs.  Instead, they are invited to enjoy a delicious piece of Wrigley’s Extra Sugar Free Chewing Gum (hold up pack of gum – show contestant putting piece of gum in mouth – mmmmmmmm).

And while Biggest Loser may be the biggest offender, they’re not the only ones.  Seems everyone is getting in on the action.  NBC’s 30 Rock has even spoofed the practice in several of its episodes (check out the link at the end of this article . . . not now!).  Advertisers have concluded that this is a practice that works.

Who cares really . . . as long as it’s not annoying?

Nobody probably – but sometimes it is.  When it begins to feel like the show’s writers have shifted their primary goal away from entertaining me to earning endorsement dollars through product placement . . . well that’s annoying!

And if I had ever found out that the reason 24 hero Jack Bauer could fight off terrorists one minute and calmly meet with the President of the United States the next was because he used Old Spice High Endurance Red Zone Antiperspirant Deodorant . . . well that would have been criminal.

It’s only annoying if you notice it.

That’s true.  There are two reasons I’ll notice product placement – first, if it’s done poorly – if it’s awkward and obtrusive.  Second, I may notice product placement simply because I just read an article about it, or heard a report or had a conversation.  It’s a matter of awareness.  It may have been subtle enough, but my product placement antenna is up and I notice it.  The more I notice it, the more annoying it is . . . the more difficult it is for me to enjoy the TV show as a story and the more I begin to perceive of it as an infomercial in disguise (not a good thing).

Asking Questions – A Sales Practice That Works

In the world of sales, asking questions of a prospective customer is almost universally recognized as a practice that works.  There’s hardly a sales book on the shelves that doesn’t devote at least a chapter to the art of asking great questions.  There are entire sales methodologies built around the practice.  And there are two things you need to understand about it.

One: It is indeed a practice that works.  I’m not going to spend any time here trying to convince you of that or tell you how it works.  You know that.  If you don’t . . . buy a book.

Two: Everybody else knows it too.  If we believe that prospective customers think we’re only selling (and therefore only raise their sales defenses) when we start to talk features and benefits, we’re naïve.

Questioning is the new pitching.

And it can be incredibly annoying!  (OK maybe that was the third thing you needed to understand)

I was traveling recently . . . had a day off between meetings and decided to walk around the city a bit.  I came to one of the tourist hot spots.  There was a mass of people . . . tourists and people intent on selling things to tourists . . . tickets to shows, tours, what have you.  I was navigating my way through the crowd, managing to ignore the barrage of offers coming my way when a simple question penetrated my defense shield and caught my attention.

“Are you on vacation?”

A question?  Excellent.  You got my attention.  (Now let me point out here that when sidewalk ticket scalpers have adopted questions into their routine, it’s safe to assume that questioning is no longer the secret weapon of the selling elite).

My response will not surprise you.  I said exactly what I’m sure most of you would say.

“I’m not interested.”

I said it without hesitation . . . without even thinking about it.  I said it instinctively.

Think about that.  There are only two logical responses to the question, “are you on vacation?”

1. Yes I am on vacation.

2. No, I am not on vacation.

“I’m not interested” is not a logical response to “Are you on vacation?’

But it is a perfectly logical response to “I want to sell you something.”

And that’s what I heard . . . no matter what he said.

But that doesn’t make it annoying!

OK, I’ll grant you that.  It’s not the practice of asking questions in a sales conversation that is annoying.  Nor is it the attempt of advertisers to sell me products during a TV show that is annoying . . . remember commercials?  (though honestly I now fast forward through most commercials thanks to my TIVO Series 2 Dual Tuner DVR).  In both cases it is the fact that the annoying party is trying to sneak something past me.

Here’s the deal – why I find sales questions annoying.

One: I think that answering your questions honestly will give you information you can turn around and use to my disadvantage (charge me more than I really needed to pay, sell me more than I really need to address my need, etc) . . . and you have the audacity to ask it anyway . . . and expect me to give you the information.

That’s annoying!

Two: I think that you’re asking these questions so you can determine how to frame your solution in a way that will best appeal to me.  Just tell me about your solution.  If it fits fine.   But I don’t have time to help you put your presentation together.

That’s annoying!

Three: I think you’re asking me these questions so you can decide whether or not you should be excited about the possible opportunity to gain my business.

That’s annoying!

You have a good reason for asking me some questions?

That may be true.  And if that’s the case, I’m not annoyed with your questions.

When I go into my local NAPA Auto Care Center and ask “How much will it cost to fix my car?,” I expect to be asked some questions.  “What kind of car do you have?”  “What seems to be the problem?”

When the seller can’t offer a solution without knowing something of the nature of my problem, I don’t find it annoying to be asked to elaborate.

It would be a similar situation if I stopped by the local branch office of Bank of America and asked someone there to describe the various services offered.  Certainly they could – but it might take a while . . . and undoubtedly many of them would not apply to me.  How much better if they just ask me a few questions about my particular situation and then describe the benefits that are relevant?

When a seller has a solution that applies in numerous situations, I don’t find it annoying to be asked questions to narrow down the scope of the conversation.

So put it all together so far, I’m not annoyed by seller’s questions if they benefit me.

That’s not entirely true.

I was on a sales call recently – a conference call with the Eastern and Western VPs for a fairly large healthcare company.  I knew a little about their needs, but not really enough to be able to know which of our solutions might be the best fit at this time.  Of course I could have described all of our solutions.  That would have taken a long time and would have been largely a waste of their time – listening to solutions that were completely irrelevant.  So I started asking questions.

All was well for a few minutes . . . then I heard it . . . he was annoyed.  It was like someone had thrown a switch.

Wait . . . you can’t be annoyed!  I’m asking these questions for your benefit! Really! I’m trying to avoid wasting your time!  I’m one of the good guys!

If a customer doesn’t understand the other centered reasons for your questions, they will assume the worst.

And they will be annoyed.

If I want to be able to ask a customer the necessary questions to be able to provide the best possible service . . .


I must provide an Other Centered Reason (OCR) for my questions.

“I’m sure we can help your company.  We have about 20 different solutions.  If I could ask you a few questions, I could narrow that down to the 2 or 3 that would probably be best suited for you . . . would that be OK?”

Not annoyed.

One last point . . . your OCR has to be real.

Customers can spot a BSOCR (it stands for exactly what you think it stands for) a mile away.

Well that’s it.  I’m going to close up my MacBook Pro Laptop Computer and get this over to the person who handles the blog for Aslan Training and Development, the sales training leader that gets at the heart of change.

As VP of Solutions, Sean’s passion is developing and creating a learning experience that emotionally taps into each learner, matches ASLAN’s commitment to excellence, and exceeds our client’s wildest expectations. Find him on: LinkedIn.

1 Comment

  1. S Garrett on March 16, 2019 at 12:15 am

    Excellent article, very well written and too the point!

Leave a Comment


The best way to get to know us is to know what we value. If we teach it we live it, because what we do speaks far more eloquently than what we say. We’ll always choose people over profits, and we’re most fulfilled and effective when we serve. It drives our culture, frames our training programs and transforms the lives of the clients we partner with.