By Jeff Shore

As a sales practitioner for 30 years, and having taught sales techniques to thousands of people on multiple continents, I have witnessed some great presentations and a whole lot of horrible ones.

Let me address a series of very popular questions that are, in fact, NOT the most important in sales (although one would think so given their popularity among salespeople).

The Not-So-Important Questions

1) “How can I help you?”

Wait, that sounds like such a helpful question. I mean, that’s what we want to do, isn’t it – help the customer and all?

The question sounds well intentioned and friendly but the approach presents a major flaw. It has to do with the translation, which sounds something like this: “You go first. You take the lead in this process and I will follow along.”

And that, my friends, is NOT selling. It might be facilitating, or assisting, or supporting, but it sure ain’t selling.

2) “Tell me what you are looking for.”

I will admit that this works …sometimes. But there are two problems with this phrase that can get you into trouble in a hurry.

The first is obvious: many people simply do not know what they are looking for.

Consider the man in the jewelry store buying a Valentine’s Day present for his significant other. If I am in that situation and you ask me what I am looking for, the response you receive will include a profoundly blank stare and perhaps the words, “Something shiny”.

And that leads us to the second problem with this question: the question itself implies that the customer should know what they are looking for. Congratulations – you are 15 seconds in and you have made the customer feel stupid.

3) “What brought you out today?”

This is a very common question in retail selling environments. And I hate it. Passionately. Let me tell you why.

How do you know if you are asking a good question? It elicits a helpful answer from the customer.

4) “How did you hear about us”?

This is a great question if you work in the marketing department but it’s a lousy question if you want to get a sales conversation started. It doesn’t get you anywhere in sales, so put it on ice for now.

The Most Important Question

Let me lay it out there for you. The most important sales question to ask is:

“Why are we talking”?

You need to find a more eloquent and relational way to ask this question, but stay with the core principle. The single most important piece of information you can know about your prospect is their motivation for purchasing.

Use this approach to determine why they are in front of you and you will pave the way for a rich and vibrant conversation:

“I know you have other things to do than to talk to salespeople all over town, and I want to make this as easy on you as possible. So let’s start with a simple question: Tell me what has you thinking about buying a new ________.”

“You agreed to speak with me so I presume that something is not working right with your current situation. I don’t want to just sit here and tell you how great my product is. Instead, you tell me what’s not working for you right now. If I can help, great. If not, I will save us both some time.” 

“May I ask you just three quick questions so I can make sure I am pointing you in the right direction? Great, thanks. Let’s start here: tell me why you are thinking about making a move in the first place. What’s going on”?

If you can get your customer talking about the “why” of their situation, the rest of the sales presentation will roll out in front of you.

This is a great opportunity to NOT sound like every other salesperson. Dig deeper than everyone else, discover your customer’s motivation and you can change their world.