Questions Your Clients Hate

I have been asking clients over the past twenty-five years questions around the one central question: "Why do you buy from one vendor over another?" The question has morphed depending on the day and the client's response to: "Why do you select one solution over another?"

The answers were pretty telling. Most if not all had some point about the professional who was responsible for the sale. The answers indicated that whatever the reason, the professional orchestrating the sale, or if you prefer, influencing the client's buying decision, had some immediate impact on the decision. He or she (the professional) always could have done something better or different, as the winning firm's professional did to win the deal.

The interesting thing is, that the deals were not won on price or best solution. The deals were won on how the professional in charge of the buying transaction conducted themselves.

I learned some other interesting points. I learned what those winning professionals did. I learned what those losing professionals did as well.

One of the things I learned was what clients disliked, no, hated about certain professionals, was the questions they asked. What I learned was that professionals who asked questions that clients did not fully appreciate seemed to fall into certain categories.

The first category was regarding the client's environment. The typical question involved a question that could have easily been answered with some digging around. Some of the answers could have been gained by going to the organization's website and doing a little rooting around. Here is the typical sort of questions that clients told me they couldn't stand:

  • "How many people do you have working here?"
  • "Where does your organization want to be in three to five years?"
  • "What are your firms best selling products?"
  • "Who is your competition?"
  • What are your challenges?"
It's readily apparent with some hindsight that these questions are definitely things you could easily find on the internet or reading the firm's annual report or some other firm related reports. These are situation type questions that add absolutely no value to the client what-so-ever. They don't challenge the client's thinking, processes, ways of doing things or anything else. 

The second category deals with open-ended type questions. These questions, according to one client, sound like a therapist's questions. These questions are what I call fishing questions. These tell me the professional does not have much of a clue or doesn't have the confidence to ask good solid questions. The professional asking these questions wants to find out the client's needs and opinions before making a commitment where they land on certain issues.
  • "How are things going for you today?"
  • "How do you feel about this?"
  • "What has been your reaction to the problem?"
  • "Can you tell me more?"
  • "What are your issues?"
The third category are questions that I think go into the "just suck" category. They are bad questions that professionals learned in some selling course or some book written by someone with little or no successful sales or consulting experience. Here they are. You will probably recognize these as you were taught to use them and perhaps you do, maybe quite regularly.  I am going to add comments to these questions, specifically comments made by clients.
  • "What do you do for fun?" This question I have heard firsthand from a sales person to a client. It's intrusive and is a blatant attempt to find some commonality between the seller and buyer. In my particular case, we were both males and the client wasn't. We were at lunch and it was our first meeting. When I heard the question, which was immediately after discussing some key business issues which we had not yet completely finished, I was shocked. It was a question out of left field. I think she was too. It sounded like the guy was hitting on her. It was a question for the bar scene at least to me. This question I found out was a typical question that clients get asked frequently in some form or another. It's an attempt to build rapport. What kind of rapport? I don't know. I cannot fathom asking this question early in the sales cycle.
  • "Who do you report to?" Another version of this is: "Who's your boss?" What this tells the person being asked the question is: You may not like us. Therefore, I want to know who I can appeal to in case you decide against us. Furthermore, you may not be the right person we are talking to. And lastly, I want to move up the food chain because I am important, more important than you.
  • "Will you be making the final decision?" This means to the client: Am I talking to the right person? Or am I wasting my time meeting with you? I want to know directly. This is a variation of the question above. It has the same pushy, denigrating effect. 
  • "How much money do you have budgeted for this project?" I don't know why, in today's environment, anyone would ask this question. Sure I would like to know too. Several clients told me when they get asked a stupid question like this, the person asking the question deserves an answer that is a lie. They almost all said, if they answered, that they gave an answer much less than they actually budgeted. They also said, it was like going to a used car lot. The sales person when they ask that question always gets a number significantly lower than the amount they intended to spend-and usually the amount was not the most pressing factor.  The other people who didn't provide a fake number said this: I don't have a number in mind. I need the right solution to address the problem. They also said, they loved to watch the sales person squirm when they provided that answer. Some questions are intrusive and accordingly are almost always not deserving of the truth according to one client. Speaking of intrusive. Let's go one question making it's rounds today.
  • "What keeps you up at night?" Speaking of weird questions when you come down to it. Is this a question to be asked of a client and not have some undertones or double meaning behind it? One client told me he told his wife a professional sales woman asked him this question and his wife said something that he could not exactly tell me, word for word. But it went something like this: Tell her your sex like is just fine thank you. Or I will." Instead of asking a question like this I believe if you know the client's business, the industry, or client's that have similar issues, you should be telling them what is keeping them up at night. You should be telling them what is their issues. 
  • "Who is my competition?" Sorry. But the client doesn't see the other providers they are talking to as your competition. They see these other providers as potential solutions. And frankly, the question has no value to the the client. It only shows the client you are interested in the client's money. It's about you, not the client. Who is my competition shouldn't matter. It's just an answer your boss may ask and you want the answer to because you fear looking ignorant. It is curiosity in some cases. I know, some will make the argument that if you know who the competition is then you can plot traps, build the solution a certain way that the competition can't, price the solution that makes it difficult for the competition and so on. I get that. I understand competitive selling and I think that's admirable, and perhaps important, although I am not convinced it supersedes the best solution for the client. I certainly am not convinced you should ask your client this question. You should find out by some other means-not by being lazy and being direct by asking your client. 
  • "Oh you like fishing?" As you look at the huge marlin hanging behind the client's desk. Another rapport building attempt. Client's have told me that they hate these lame questions and several clients say they have taken out of their offices anything that relates to things the like to do or any hobbies they have because of these types of questions from professionals in an attempt to build a friendly schmoozing atmosphere. The same questions go for the pictures behind his or her desk, although I have to say, if there truly is a genuine cord of interest, I have seen where client's do perk up.
With that, I will conclude this writing hoping that you get the message. Questions in the hands of an amateur reveal the amateur's lack of skills. Questions in the hands of a pro demonstrate to the client a sort of thinking and the ability to see around corners that the client understands and has come to appreciate. Questions reveal to the client, if asked properly, things they hadn't considered. And if anything, clients learn more about the person asking the questions, than the person asking the questions learns about the client. 

Partnering: Selling Is Not a Four Letter Word - But Being Sold Is!

Let's face facts. Who in the world wants to be sold? I bought a new car a few years ago. It was my third of the exact same model and series. I had already done all my research and I wanted the same car - except a newer model. I knew what I wanted. Instead of just selling me the car - the sales person attempted to sell me. I had already explained what I wanted and that this was going to be my third car. But he continued to sell me. I told him I was already sold - that I just wanted a fair price and the color I wanted. But he continued. I finally asked him to stop and told him he was actually unselling me - and that if he couldn't give me the car, the color and the price, I would go to someone else.

I think this story is typical of buyers today.

Back in the day, selling was an active process of persuading the client. Often this meant persuading the client to do something they didn't want to do. This was high-pressure salesmanship (there's a word you don't see any longer) and often involved manipulation, distortion of the facts, and outright lying. Fortunately, these days are long gone and no one who is in sales does this any longer. However, the misperception of sales and selling still lingers on.

The idea of "I win, you lose" is one where some client people today still come from. This old idea - is where sales person and client are adversaries. While almost every person who is involved to getting business has moved away from this adversarial positioning, there are still those people in client accounts who now set up this adversarial positioning and in fact, their job depends on it - especially in certain services and solutions that are considered a commodity.

In the past, the client was seen as the adversary. Now it seems that some people in the client account see us as the adversary. Of course, this all depends on the client and I believe, where they are in the organization's pecking order, or food chain.

In order to have an adversary or competitor, you have to make the other person disadvantaged. This is an "I give up a little - you give up a little more than what I just gave up" approach. Someone inevitably gets a bad deal and/or feels cheated or "trespassed against." The client feels like they paid too much, or didn't get what they needed, and the professional makes a profitless sale. In other words, both walk away from the transaction with a deficit. When this occurs, the buying process has mutually disadvantaged both parties.

I think the more sophisticated the client and the professional, and the less the service or solution the client wants to buy is viewed as a commodity, the better both the client and the professional interacts with each other. Both parties are aware of trickery and deceitfulness, and ploys and counter ploys that can be used against each other - but choose not too act in that manner with each other.

When both parties are sophisticated enough, and feel they can operate from a higher plain because their self-esteem is strong enough to withstand scrutiny and shrug off judgements of other, they can both get into a term of what everyone knows and hears of as "partnering."

I am leery of the word, "partnering." As one CFO said, "It's not until you have skin in the game that I consider the provider as a partner." I do think there is a middle ground - where there is a certain "skin in the game" for the professional and even the client. It's what we have all heard by now as "win-win."

Even as I type this, I know some of you who will read this will say, I know "win-win." This is nothing new. And I can say, "I agree." The big however is this - so few of us and the client - really truly act in accordance with win-win. Win-win is a sales strategy and buying approach whereby both parties truly act and behave in ways in which both parties make it their objective to create a premium-value/premium-price buying transaction where the professional receives a premium price for what he is providing and the client receives the premium values of the professional's benefits, advantages and results. In this approach, both profit mutually.

Now that you have read the last two sentences, you probably will agree with this statement: very few of us have those kinds of relationships with clients. Am I right?

Negotiating is the process of where you as the professional are working to help the client achieve what they want and need. Mutually beneficial negotiating is the art of making mutually profitable consulting agreements. Profitable for both parties, because that's really what both parties want and need. It is not the art of deception, manipulation, or double-speak. The objective of the buying and negotiation process is to create  a partnership.

5 Levels of Adaptability - How Adaptable is Your Client to Change?

If you aren't thinking about how to interact with your client and attempting to figure out the best way for you to adapt your style to their style, you are going to miss out on a lot of business. Equally important is trying to figure out how well your client is to adapting to change or something that is new.

It's incumbent upon you - the consultant, the professional, advisor, or whatever you call yourself - to work at relating your style to best match theirs and understand what is going on inside their head. Is this manipulative? Only if you think it is? Some of you may be thinking, "Why should I change? Why shouldn't the client accept me as I am?"

I don't think this is a good question at all. But I receive this question a lot. And the question usually  comes from - not surprisingly - people who aren't very successful with clients, and not very successful with people in general for that matter. These are the people who are rough around the edges. These people are usually argumentative and would rather be right than change.

I usually can't coach these people beyond the question, "What if you are wrong?" because they can't get their head around that question. It never really occurs to them that they could be wrong.

So, assuming you dear reader, are not one of these people, I am going to walk you through how people, specifically clients, interpret a new experience. A "new experience" deals with whatever it is you are trying to convince a client of - for example; one way is better than the old way, this new service is better than the other service, this offer (as in a negotiation) is different and meets what they are asking for, or some other event where they are getting new information, new data, and are trying to determine "where it goes" in the catalog inside their brain.

Five (5) Categories of  Adaptability  (Accepting Change)
When the client encounters this "new event" or "new experience" - and this happens quite a bit when meeting with you - he will do one of the following things:

Category 1 - Assimilating; He will assimilate the information with a past experience or previous information. It will slip into one of the many categories his has - as in a file inside a filing cabinet or a drawer inside a dresser. Think of it as new socks. These new socks are easy to categorize because they are like all the other socks. And they all go into the "sock drawer." Simple, easy, pleasant, compatible, and fast. Summed up by "Got it."

Category 2 - Threatening: He sees this as way too different. Radical.  Too far outside the box of categories. It may seem too threatening to his beliefs, his way of thinking, his current operation. It could go against the grain of the culture, too confrontational of a style coming from you versus his laid back style or his team's laid back style, or it goes against where the organization is heading because it requires a left turn or an about-face. It could be summed up as, "No way."

Category 3 - One-Off: -  He will see it in isolation. It is different than what he has seen before - and keep it apart from the other things. He will treat it as an exception, so that he can continue forward as he normally and customarily does. When thinking of a negotiation or a sale - this is a way to overcome the item above (number 2). Offering it to the client as this will be a one-time event and not disrupt the other things going on as in the current negotiation, other contracts, other projects, etc. It can be summed up as a "one off."

Category 4 - Similar: He might distort and morph the new event or information to make it fit into his current categories or past beliefs and behaviors. He will say, "It's similar to this, but a little different." Then he will explain how it relates to the other things.

Category 5 - Accepting: He will change his old thinking, beliefs and behaviors. More people are willingly accepting that  the information they have currently, may be outdated. This is summed up by, "Okay, this is different. Let's see how we can do this."

As a person who is trying to get the client to buy, negotiate, learn or change, you are always, and I mean this, always looking for win-win circumstances. Clients, as worldly as they are in today's business environment, on still on-guard for someone trying to pull the wool over their eyes - to try and trick them.

One of your tasks as a professional is to reach client-professional win-win strategies. This is especially true of new clients - and since they don't know you, it's incumbent upon you to convince the person that it wouldn't benefit you in the short or long run to go for win-lose propositions. Clients - especially clients who haven't worked with you in the past - are looking to see "what's wrong with this picture?" It's not the way I operate frankly, as it seems to me, this way of thinking is just too time consuming and energy draining.

However, a lot of clients have been burned before by half-baked ideas and proposals and purchases that came "without the batteries" if you get what I mean. They are part of a vast majority who after they bought something they have this feeling of, "If I would have known then about this, I would have asked this about it." I know you can relate to that - because we all can. Sometimes our experiences make us wiser and "we wish we would have known" something in order to ask about it.

Your job then, is to approach the client as if they are skeptical and perhaps even a little cynical. To overcome any skepticism what you can do is "over educate" them. Give the client all the information they need to make the right and best decision. Start off by confirming what they want and need and confirm how they want the process to go - this includes the buying cycle as well as the implementation cycle. And if they aren't asking the right questions - tell them that they aren't asking the right questions. The give them the questions to ask - before they learn the hard way.

This places the client in control of the buying process. They are not being sold, they are being educated. The client is learning. And by providing the client with enough information, the client slowly drops his guard, however he still might be a little wary looking for any indication that this might be a trick. Except there is no trick.

This is a great way to differentiate yourself by the way. Say to the client "You're not going to have an uneducated client." And you are looking for a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship, where you are working with the client in an open, non-confrontational, win-win manner.

I have worked with prospective clients where they not only were skeptical, they were deeply cynical. To overcome this, I pointed the prospective client to my other clients and pushed a client list of names, titles, and phone numbers, across the desk before I left, for them to call - to "see if I was real." I even offered to place the call and set up con call with clients where I screwed up, or the project was challenging, so they could hear from the client first hand where I made a mistake - and then hear how I corrected it.

I have gone even further, and you may not think this was a good idea, but I have told clients how much I made in profit or margin on a transaction before. When I did this, the client was shocked. First, they said, "You mean you can tell me how much you are going to make off a transaction?" I've also told clients  that I would actually place a cap on how much we would make in profit before - again - shocking the client. Clients think we make a lot of money - a lot of profit. When I tell clients what our margin typically is, I've actually had clients say, "Wow, that's all you make? That little?"

Well, I've gone on a little past where I wanted to go in this piece of writing. The main point I wanted to make is that there are certain psychological aspects you should be aware of in order to break through to the client and distinguishing yourself from the pack of other professionals you are competing with who are also vying for the client's business. Some of my ideas may seem radical, but from my perspective - I don't think they are, because you are opening yourself up to the client and telling him the truth and the facts and this is a very different approach.

Power Point Problems - Why Words Get In the Way

Everyone who knows me is probably a little annoyed when it comes to PowerPoint Presentations.  I insist on less words and more diagrams.  My "enemies" claim that this is because I cannot read. Which is not totally accurate - I am really just impatient and I don't like people reading to me - probably because of my childhood - which is a whole 'nother story . . .

I love diagrams - I feel the proper diagram conveys a waaaaay better message than a bunch of run-on sentences. In fact, in my scientific study of hundreds of clients, I have come to the hypothetical conclusion that clients hate/disdain/dislike PowerPoint for the same reason I do: they hate to be read to.

When it comes to PowerPoints, unless you are doing some sort of day long training, a good PowerPoint deck can have one or two slides with a single diagram that conveys the entire solution, defines the entire problem or captures the essence of whatever it is you are trying to convey.

For example - consider the diagram below. It's actually a "process diagram." And perhaps most importantly, the process diagram captures the essence of an issue, defines the problem, and provides a solution - ALL IN ONE diagram. (I found from a guy who took it from a guy who has a blog somewhere in the Netherlands.)

See if you can "guess" the problem. And just tell me - you don't get the solution! Ha! You'll get it right away.

Here it is. In the words of a comedian, "Enjoy."

To give the author credit - here is his name - Martin. And you can find his work here:


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