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. 

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