What Makes Dumb Sales Questions Dumb?


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Can I have your order?

Dumb question, if you’re asking it just before shaking hands with a prospect for the first time. But questions aren’t dumb. Poor timing, improper context, and wrong intent make them seem dumb.

Asking for an order before taking any time to establish trust and rapport, let alone to even learn about a prospect’s challenge, will surely generate reactions–none of them good. But at a more opportune moment, the same interrogative becomes a Super Sales Question.

As Jeffrey Gitomer wrote in a recent blog, “Salespeople become known by the questions they ask.” How do they avoid embarrassment?

Answer: it’s not easy. The most innocuous questions can be branded as dumb. One blog, titled The Top 10 Dumb Sales Questions During a Bad Economy, lists “Who is your competition?” “What is your budget?” “Who should I follow up with?” Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. I’ve asked all three.

Gitomer’s blog, Here are the Dumbest Questions Salespeople Ask and Why They’re Dumb pans “Who are you currently using . . .?” “Are you satisfied with your present . . . ?” and “How much are you currently paying for . . . ?” Yep. I’ve asked those questions, too.

Other writers dislike “Are you the decision maker?” “What would it take to earn your business?” and “How are you?”

There’s an endless supply of questions that people find irritating. If you’re worried about being uninformed about what they are, fear not. We’ll see lists into perpetuity. Is it possible to ever get questions right? I think so.

Instead of studiously avoiding questions others impugn, salespeople should focus on avoiding situations and actions that make their questions land with an ugly splat, and then wind up on someone’s Do Not Use list. There’s a fine line between smart and dumb, as the following examples illustrate.

Good questions share the following characteristics:

1. They seek meaningful insight. What insight must be discovered to qualify and close opportunities? Some salespeople are unclear about what they’re after, so they struggle to find the right questions. Good questions uncover risks and opportunities, and their consequences and magnitudes—for salespeople and prospects.

2. They are connected to other questions. Asking “what is your budget?” as a stand-alone question could seem perfunctory or self-serving. Probably both. But asking the same question in a series of connected financial questions would be more effective.

3. They are efficient. Asking “are you the decision maker?” is lame if what you really need to discover is how your prospect makes purchase decisions. But it’s the right question to ask if you need to find out “Are you the decision maker?”

4. They properly frame problems. Asking “how are you going to transition from on-premise software licensing to cloud computing?” is a dumb question if the person you’re speaking with doesn’t think of his or her problem that way. But it’s a great question if you want to expose a major risk or opportunity that inevitably must be considered.

5. They aren’t manipulative. “Do you see how this feature could provide benefits for you?” was a question one of my clients coached their sales team to use during software demos. I cringed the first time I heard it, and I advised the sales manager that the question steered prospects into a response they might not believe. Still, there might be situations when it could be useful. Let me know if you think of any.

6. They have the right intentions. If your purpose for asking questions is to build trust and rapport, you’ll ask dumb questions. Building trust and rapport is not the reason for asking questions, it’s an outcome.

7. They are well-timed. “How are you?” is a dumb question at the beginning of a conversation with someone you’ve never spoken with. It’s not such a great question at the end of the conversation either, come to think of it. But it’s an empathetic question when used in a more familiar context.

8. They are appropriate. “Do you have kids?” can be dumb at the outset of an initial meeting, or if your prospect provides no clue that he or she is a parent. But it’s an appropriate question if the same question were asked of you, or if there are finger paintings plastered to the walls of the prospect’s office.

9. They build on facts already well-known. Asking “Who is your competition?” might seem dumb. After all, you’re supposed to know that before you meet with a prospect. But in many instances, it’s worth asking, because you might not really know. On one sales call I made to a large infant formula manufacturer, I asked that question of the VP Operations. His answer? “Mom!” Who would have thought? I didn’t see lactating mothers mentioned as a revenue threat anywhere in the annual report.

10. They are underpinned by good assumptions. Asking “what would it take to earn your business?” is a dumb question if the prospect hasn’t discussed any compelling reason for change. But it’s a good question to ask when it’s evident that they will.

No need to stress if you’re using questions that are on someone’s proscribed list. No salesperson I know of has ever been bounced out of a prospect’s office for asking “who is your competition?”– although some have been for being chronically uninformed. For questions, as with most things in sales, situation matters.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


  1. … salespeople should focus on avoiding situations and actions that make their questions land with an ugly splat … LOL thanks Andy

    Great post to get refocused on a Monday.


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