Selling by asking questions

I have reflected on “Selling by Asking Questions” for some time. We all do it but don’t give enough credit to the concept itself.
When the phone rings, we receive an email, or someone walks in the door, and we meet the prospect for the first time, we all do the same thing: We ask a question or two. Why do we do this? We need to gather information, or we can’t do our job!

  • We ask the traditional questions of who, what, where, when, why, and how:
  • Who is the decision maker? (OK, this one is for you to decide to answer)
  • What are you looking for?
  • What is your budget?
  • Where is the project located?
  • When would you like the work done?
  • Why have you decided you need this done now?
  • How did you find us?

We take that information and then begin to ask another series of questions. The second series of questions helps us to understand their wants, needs, and desires. We often call this an Assessment Analysis. Things like number of shoes, number of pants, number of purses, number feet of long hang, number feet of half-hang, etc. 

While all of this is happening, we might also be drawing the space and taking measurements, which again is a necessary part of collecting answers that help us do our job.

Once we have all the information we need, we can get to work providing solutions that give our clients the answers they are looking for.

Now, I bring all of this up to get to the point of this article. Begin to look at the questions that you are asking. Determine whether they give you the answers you are looking for and determine if they demonstrate to your client that you know what you are talking about. You want to convey, by your questions, that you are thinking of things they never thought needed answers to and that you are a professional. Awareness of this concept is a way to separate yourself from your competitors. It allows you to think of the questions you want answers to and focus on that old saying, “It is not what you say, but how you say it.”

Begin to re-think your questions and how you want to word them. What tone of voice should you use? When do you want to ask certain questions? When I started more than 30 years ago, I would write them down on a 3 x 5 index card so I would not forget.
Generally, the one asking questions is in control of the appointment. Have you ever had a customer over whom you lost control? We all have, and usually, it is because their questions took us off our game plan. To get back in control, you must ask questions!

The following is a good example of when I had to adjust the questions I asked of clients:
I have been working with custom home builders for many years, which means that when I have an appointment with a client, it is to walk the entire house. From the front entry closet through to the primary bedroom closet. In early 2010, a substantial Indian population began moving into Naperville, Illinois, and I soon discovered their needs were different than what I was used to:

  • They would not wear shoes in the house.
  • They cook with a lot of flour and rice.
  • Their traditional Indian clothing was long.

By the time this new homeowner meets with me to discuss their closets, they have already met with most of the other trades and made most of the other selections. Decisions like kitchen cabinets, flooring, paint colors, exteriors like the roof or siding, appliances…have all been made. You get the point; they are tired of making decisions and are cautious that I will try to “upsell” them.

I know I will “get this sale” because the builder has already made that decision. So, my goal is to put the client at ease while also being aware of their needs and budget. I always start at the entry closet with the question, “Do you and your guests wear shoes in the home?” When they answer “no,” I ask, “Where should we put the shoes?”

Or, when we get to the pantry, I ask, “Do you cook with rice and flour?” When they answer “yes,” I ask if they bought the 25-pound or 50-pound bags. When they answer, I ask, “Where should we put it?”

The first question I ask when I get to the primary closet is, “Do you wear traditional Indian clothing?” Whether they do or not is irrelevant to this article. The point is that by the time we get to the primary closet, they believe that I am the expert and that I know and understand their needs. In thinking about how and when to ask the relevant client questions, I have developed the client’s trust in me and acquired the information necessary for me to develop a design. 

All the people who reach out to us, everyone we meet with, are usually going to buy what we sell. The real question is from whom? At the end of the day, we all know that “people buy from people they like and trust.”

The benefits of purposefully selling by asking questions are:

  • You are provided with the answers you need for design.
  • It demonstrates your knowledge and/or experience.
  • It assists you in maintaining control of your appointment.
  • Asking questions is one approach to both getting answers and building trust!



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About the author
Tim Coleman

Tim Coleman is branch manager of SCE Unlimited Chicago, a div. of IBP. Coleman founded his closet organization company in 1988 and ran it successfully for nearly 30 years. In October 2020, he took the helm at SCE Unlimited, which offers wire and wood organization systems, hardware and accessories.