Why Do You Use an Umbrella?: The Best Sales Questions Dig Beyond the Obvious


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Why do people use umbrellas?

It’s not a trick question. But before you answer it, substitute your own product or service for the word “umbrellas.”

My client uses this Umbrella Question to help salespeople learn the importance of digging past biases when asking questions. Like all discovery, there are many pathways to the answer. Here’s one from a recent meeting:

“Why do people use umbrellas?”
“So they don’t get wet.”

“Why is it important for them not to get wet?”
“So they don’t catch a cold.”

“Why is it important for them not to catch a cold?”
“So they won’t get sick.”

“And why is it important for them not to get sick?”
“So they won’t die.”

Wow! Using an umbrella prolongs life!

The person who answered these questions had clear ideas about the connections between cause and effect. Whether or not you believe an umbrella will enable someone to live longer, the exercise underscores the importance of continuing the discovery past the obvious answer, “so they don’t get wet.”

An article I wrote, “The Right Sales Questions Will Get The Right Answers” describes a sales opportunity I lost by failing to do just that—to get beyond the obvious. It would have been great to know the Umbrella Question at the time.

The value of asking questions that dig beyond the obvious doesn’t just apply to sales calls. It applies to anyone who must understand needs, wants, desires, and motivations of the individuals who purchase from them. In a CRM scenario:

“Why do customers choose to call our contact center?”
“To place orders.”

“And why do they use the phone?”
“Because they’re uncomfortable using live chat.”

“Why are they uncomfortable using live chat?”
“Because they feel more at home communicating by talking to another individual.”

“And why do they prefer talking vs. typing?”
“Because they feel lonely.”

“And why do they feel lonely?”

Think of how an organization might shape the Customer Experience by uncovering the root causes of customer preferences.

Whenever I buy pharmaceuticals for my dog, I place the orders through the call center of Drs. Foster Smith, a catalog retailer for pet supplies. The call center agents are invariably helpful and knowledgeable. Although I’ve never asked, I wonder how many pet stories they patiently endure as they guide callers through how to select the best squeaky toy for their dog.

Could the company already understand something that most companies don’t—that customers call them for reasons that go beyond one obvious answer—to place orders?


  1. This is terrific advice. Even further, I recommend asking questions designed to uncover the value of solving the problem.

    Following the umbrella example above, one might follow with:

    – How many times a year do you get sick from getting wet, when you didn’t have an umbrella?

    [Oh, a couple of times a year…]

    – And how many days did you miss from work as a result?

    [Hmmm, I probably was out a total of 6 working days, plus a weekend – so I had to make up those missed days, which impacted two other weekends and put me at risk of missing some deadlines, too.]

    – So, for the want of an umbrella, you lost 6 working days, three weekends, and were at risk of not completing projects on time…?

    [Yes – wow… I hadn’t realized how important this was!]

    Peter E. Cohan
    The Second Derivative
    1538 Winding Way
    Belmont, CA 94002
    Telephone: +1 650 631 3694
    Email: [email protected]


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