To Sell or Not To Sell, That Is the Question

UPDATED: May 8, 2023
PUBLISHED: October 28, 2009

Two of the most important aspects of selling are asking questions and listening.

The proper questions will make the prospect tell you everything you need to sell him or her. Effective listening skills will give you the power and self-discipline to uncover facts/needs and then formulate a response that moves the buyer to a decision.

That sounds so simple. So why doesn’t everyone buy when you try to sell them? Because…

1. You’re not doing an effective job of asking questions.

2. You’re not doing an effective job of listening to the prospect.

3. You have a preconceived notion about the prospect – prejudging the type of person, anticipating answers and interrupting dialog.

4. You think you already know all the answers, so why bother asking questions or listening with full attention.

5. You have not uncovered the true needs of the prospect. How can you satisfy needs if you don’t know what they are?

The most effective sales call is 25% talking and 75% listening. How does that compare to what you do? Oh, that doesn’t apply to me you say, my product is different – I need to talk more. Bull-blank. That’s just an excuse. What you’re really saying is – I don’t know how to ask a question effectively.

How do you ask a question? In a word – open-ended. Avoid yes or no questions unless you’re sure yes is a slam dunk – as in a tie down question.

The 12 Challenges

Below are 12 challenges to the types and styles of questions you ask:

1. Is the question clear and concise?

Does the prospect understand the question, it’s meaning, content and implication.

2. Does the question require productive thinking before the prospect can formulate a response?

Have you put the prospect on the path toward your product or service as a result of the question.

3. Does the question force the prospect to evaluate new information or concepts?

Are you building prospect credibility by asking superior questions that don’t make him feel inferior, but does challenge him in a new way.

4. Does the question make you seem more knowledgeable than your competitors by probing in new areas?

Are you separating yourself from the competition by asking questions the competition never thought to ask?

5. Does the question lead the prospect (and you) to draw from past experience?

Are you asking the prospect questions that make him or her share things they are proud of? These are not only sales questions, they are rapport building questions.

6. Does the question generate a response that the prospect has never thought of before?

New twists make you seem different, better, at the top of your game.

7. Does the question provide a tie down answer that moves the presentation process closer to a close?

Using question lead in or ending words like don’t you, isn’t it, shouldn’t you, doesn’t it, provides you with the opportunity for the prospect to say yes to a particular part of your presentation and move on to the next area.

8. Does the question relate directly to the prospects (business) situation?

The more direct the question, the more likely you are to get a direct response.

9. Does the question relate directly to the prospects objectives?

Are you probing in areas that the prospect can relate to? Areas that make the prospect commit to real answers.

10. Does the question draw information from the prospect that helps you make the sale easier?

Questions about how your product/service will be used, what are his/her expectations.

11. Does the question create an atmosphere that is positive and conducive to make a sale?

Is the question provocative or provoking? Don’t make the prospect mad when you ask a question, make him think.

12. Are you asking a question back when a prospect asks you one?

Prospect – Can I get delivery in two weeks?

Salesperson – Is that when you need it delivered?

And of course the ultimate question – Are you asking a closing question?

A question the answer to which confirms the sale. Do you have 10 or 12 different closing questions written down to rehearse and use as the occasion arises? I’ll bet you don’t.

Want to master this science? Write two or three questions that respond to each of the twelve challenges above, and incorporate them into your selling process. If you do, I’ll make you two promises:

1. It will be very difficult.

2. The reward for doing it will make you a better, more financially rewarded salesperson forever.

Questions are to sales what breathing is to life. If you fail to ask them you will die. If you ask them incorrectly your death won’t be immediate – but it’s inevitable. If you ask them correctly the answer is a sale.

The question is the most important skill salesperson should master… The importance of asking one properly lies somewhere between sale and no sale.

Developing the Power Question

Do you talk or ask your way to a sale?


A sale takes place when a prospect trusts and has confidence in the salesperson, and the prospect perceives a valued difference in the company and the product.

You’ve never said to your spouse — “Honey, let’s go out and get sold a car.” No, you say, “Let’s go out and buy a car.” People don’t want to be sold — but they love to buy.

Your challenge is to create an atmosphere where a “buy” can take place. You accomplish this by asking the right questions and let the prospect or customer answer his or her own concerns — while you uncover their present situation and real needs.

Power Questions are the difference between earning a sale and fighting for a sale. What’s a Power Question? Good question.

The definition of a Power Question is…Ask a question about the prospect, that makes the prospect think about themselves and answer in terms of you.

The key to developing a Power Question is…formulating an open ended, thought provoking question that uncovers how the prospect uses or could use what you sell, reveals their present situation or tells how decisions are made (how they buy).

Major secret of selling: Instead of telling the prospect about your a key benefit, ask a question about it. When you ask, you get open response — answers. When you tell, you close the prospect off from communicating specific purpose needs — Needs that lead to the sale. The result of “telling” is a defensive prospect. Telling leads to objections — asking leads to a sale.

Success Strategy: It’s not about what you have to offer, it’s about how the prospect will use what you offer to build his or her business. The only way you can get to these uses is to ask. Questions uncover needs.

When you ask the right question, one that makes the prospect think about their needs and respond in terms of your product or service — your prospects will begin to sell themselves. The only thing more powerful than that is if they give you their blank signed check and ask you to fill it out.

Here are a few examples of a Power Question:

• How do you ensure that you’re taking maximum advantage of (your product or service) to grow your business.

• What are your plans to increase your profitability through (your product or service) over the next twelve months? (most prospects won’t have a plan)

• How do your sales people use (your product or service) to gain sales?

• How much is (your product or service) impacting your growth?

• How are you (your customers) taking advantage of (your product or service)?

• Have you identified any other (your product or service) opportunities you want to employ this year?

• If you owned (used) a (your product or service), how would you take advantage of it?

Then get into questions about the criteria by which decisions are made:

• What made you choose your present supplier?

• How did you make the last decision? Who was involved?

• How long have you been using the service?

• How often have they contacted you since you began?

• How much added-value support have they provided you?

• How would a (make a special offer) impact your decision to give us an opportunity to earn your business?

• How is your present supplier making your business grow?

As a consultant you must be able to ask the question—What opportunities are you missing in (your product or service) to grow your business? –and uncover the answers that will lead to a buying decision.

If you believe you can provide the products that will help your prospect profit, produce, and succeed, then the challenge is — can you create an atmosphere where trust, confidence, and value are perceived strong enough for the prospect to buy? You can with the right questions. You can’t with the wrong statements. Your choice.

There Is Such a Thing As a Dumb Question

Ask smart questions, they think you’re smart. Ask dumb…

Sales Truth: Salespeople become known by the questions they ask.

Knowing this truth, you’d think all salespeople would ask smart questions. You’d be thinking wrong. It never ceases to amaze me, that with all the options salespeople have, they choose to alienate, anger or cause doubt in the mind of the prospect by setting the wrong tone with their questions.

Here are the dumbest questions salespeople ask — and why they’re dumb:

• Who are you currently using…?

Pre-call research should tell you that. And maybe the prospect feels that’s none of your business. Good start.

• Are you satisfied with your present…?

Everyone will tell you they’re satisfied. So what? Well, OK, If you’re satisfied I’ll just leave and quit.

• How much are you currently paying for…?

None of your business #2. Let’s get down to price as fast as you can.

• Can I quote you on…?

Why send a quote — the next person who quotes 2¢ cheaper gets the business. What about the value?

• Can I bid on…?

Same as a “quote” only worse. This is a 100% price driven sale. Low margin. Low profit. Low commission. Low percentage of success. How low do you want to go?

• Tell me a little bit about your business?

No. It’s a waste of the prospects time. Find out a little bit about the prospects business, so you can go into the sales call with answers and ideas that may get the prospect excited enough to buy.

• Are you the person who decides about…?

Come on. This is THE question that breeds the most lies. The answer is most often “yes,” and the answer most often is false. Why ask a question that breeds misleading information? The correct question to ask is: How will the decision be made?

• If I could save you some money, would you…?

Give me a break. Every salesperson and his dog thinks that the customer will jump at the hint of saving money. This tactic actually has a negative effect on the buyer, and makes the salesperson work twice as hard to prove himself and usually at a lower price (and lower commission).

and the worst question of them all:

• What would it take to get (earn) your business?

This question literally is saying to the prospect: “Look, I don’t have much time here. Could you just tell me the quickest way to get this order, and make me do the least amount of work possible to get it.”

Dumb Questions Are Made Up of Dumb Words

DUMB WORDS: Let’s add a bunch of negative words that prospects hate or get their guard up — today, frankly, honestly, if I were you, or anything negative about the previous choice they made or anything negative about your competition.

Now, before you get all hostile on me, I’m not saying don’t get this information. I am saying there are smarter, better ways of getting this information that will lead you to a sale. The questions above make the prospect have a lower opinion of you, and that will lead to nothing but price wars and frustration.

These are all “price driven questions.” In other words they are the kind of questions where the sale boils down to the price. And if you want the sale real bad — simple, just lower your price to where you make little or no profit. Duh.

The secret of good (smart) questions are those that make the prospect stop and think, and answer in terms of you. If you ask people questions that you could have found out the answer by some means as simple as looking up the information on their web site, how intelligent or hard working does that make you look? Not very.

Here are a few “lead-in” questions – all you have to do is add some words that identify and describe your service or product:

Tell me about the best…

Tell me about the first…

Tell me about the last time you…

Which one is your favorite…

If you could have any of these, which…

If price were no object, which would you choose…

Why do you like this one…

What would you do with it…

Where would you use it…

How would it improve…

Who would be the most impressed…

How would this help…

What makes you think…

How do you select…

What’s most important to you about…

Where do you see…

How have you employed…

What has been your experience with…

If you could change one thing about…

How would you improve…

What plans have you made to…

NOTE: You do have the luxury of asking a weak question about their stuff, if you preface it with the statement, “I was looking at your web site last night and I got a couple of ideas I’d like to talk to you about, but there were a few things I’d like to understand a little better about the way you serve your customer.”


If you walk in with an IDEA that you got from reading their annual report, their trade magazine, or reading their web info, you will earn the respect of the person making the buying decision. You will also be viewed as credible. Respect and credibility lead to trust. Trust leads to sale. Think about that the next time you’re formulating a question.

How to Rise to the Top 5%

Questions are so critical, you’d think it would be the topic of training every week. Yet salespeople are odds on favorites to have never taken one training program in the science of asking a question.

How critical? The first personal (rapport) question sets the tone for the meeting, and the first business question sets the tone for the sale. That’s critical.

What are the benefits of asking the right question? Good question.

Here’s 9.5 benefits to make sales by:

1. Qualify the buyer.

2. Establish rapport.

3. Create prospect disparity.

4. Eliminate or differentiate from the competition.

5. Build credibility.

6. Know the customer and her business.

7. Identify needs.

8. Find hot buttons.

9. Get personal information.

and 9.5 Close the sale.

All these answers come from asking the right questions. Power Questions.

Here’s the rub:

Do you have 25 of them — the most powerful questions you can create — at your fingertips? No? Join the crowd. 95% of all salespeople don’t. That could be why only 5% of salespeople rise to the top. Just a theory (or is it?)

Here’s the challenge:

Get every prospect and customer to say “No one ever asked me that before.”

Here are the 7.5 questioning success strategies:

1. Ask prospect questions that make him evaluate new information.

2. Ask questions that qualify needs.

3. Ask questions about improved productivity, profits or savings.

4. Ask questions about company or personal goals.

5. Ask questions that separate you from your competition — not compare you to them.

6. Ask questions that make the customer or prospect think before giving a response.

7. Ask Power Questions to create a BUYING atmosphere — not a selling one.

7.5 a critical success strategy: To enhance your listening skills, write down answers. It proves you care, preserves your data for follow-up, keeps the record straight, and makes the customer feel important.

Formulating a Power Question

There’s a secret to creating and asking the right type of Power Question. It’s a question that makes them think (and respond) about me/the seller in terms of the prospect.

Sounds complicated — but it isn’t.

Here are some bad examples:

• What type of life insurance do you have?

• Do you have a pager?

• Who do you currently use for long distance service?

All stink.

Here are some good examples:

• If your husband died, how would the house payments be made? How would the children go to college?

• If your most important customer called right now, how would you get the message?

• If your long distance charges were 30% higher than they should be, how would you know?

All make the buyer think and respond in terms of his own interests, and answer in terms of the seller. WOW!

Here’s a winner: Scott Wells, of Time Warner Cable in Raleigh, came up with a grand-slam home-run question in a training session — The objective was to ask a prospect qualifying questions about getting cable TV, and sell all premium channels possible. Scott asked “If you owned your own Cable channel, Ms. Jones, what would be on it?” WOW, what a question — it draws out all the likes (and perhaps the dislikes) of the customer, and puts every answer in terms of the sale being made.

Here’s a series: Let’s say I train sales teams (hey, what a coincidence, I do). Here’s a series of questions designed to make my prospect think about himself, and answer in terms of me/the seller. (Answers are not given here, and can sometimes play a part in question order, but you’ll get the process.):

• How many of your salespeople did not meet their sales goals last year?

• Why? (What was the major cause?)

• What plans have you made to ensure that they will this year?

• What type of personal development plan for each salesperson have you put into place?

• How do you support your sales staff?

• How much training did you budget last year?

• How much did you wish you’d have budgeted?

• When training takes place, how do you measure each individual’s professional development progress?

These eight questions will give me enough answers to rewrite their sales record book (and their checkbook).

It’s About ‘Heart’ Sells—Not Hard Sells

This is not hard sell, it’s heart sell. Good questions get to the heart of the problem or need very quickly—and without the buyer feeling like he or she is being pushed.

At the end of the sales day, it’s not just asking questions, it’s asking the right questions. A sale is made or lost based on the questions you ask. If you aren’t making all the sales you want — start by evaluating the specific wording of the questions you’re asking. Your answers are in your questions.

Jeffrey Gitomer is the author of The Sales Bible and The Little Red Book of Selling. President of Charlotte-based Buy Gitomer, he gives seminars, runs annual sales meetings, and conducts Internet training programs on selling and customer service at He can be reached at 704/333-1112 or e-mail to [email protected]

© 2009 All Rights Reserved – Don’t even think about reproducing this document without written permission from Jeffrey H. Gitomer and Buy Gitomer, Inc. •

Jeffrey Gitomer is the author of The Sales Bible and The Little Red Book of Selling. President of Charlotte, North Carolina-based Buy Gitomer, he gives seminars, runs annual sales meetings and conducts Internet training programs on selling and customer service.