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Questions Worth Asking

“Will you look back on life and say, ‘I wish I had’ or ‘I’m glad I did?” – Zig Ziglar

“Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” – Will Rogers

“I’m sick and tired of hearing things from uptight, short-sighted, narrow minded hypocrites. All I want is the truth, just give me some truth.” – John Lennon

A) Questioning Techniques

B) Selling Is Simple

C) What Can Questions Achieve?

D) Our Own Perception of The World

E) Barrier Breakers

F) Bridge Builders

G) Confusion Clearers

H) There Is Always An Easier Way!

A) Questioning Techniques

A co-founder of NLP, John Grinder, a Professor of Linguistics at the University Of California, modelled America’s greatest communicators. This included a Dr Milton Erickson, who had revolutionised what had been traditional hypnosis and was President of the American Society for Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy. As a professor of linguistics, observing the effects of Erickson’s language patterns on his patients amazed him. These successful patterns that were teased out appear in two volumes in the bibliography. Interestingly it was later established from modelling top performing sales superstars, that unknowingly these patterns were getting them their exceptional results in their communication.

From this and other NLP research there are two fundamental NLP models of language: the Meta model, which is a set of questions that gets straight to the core issues, and the Milton model, which gains access to the unconscious mind. There is nothing I have experienced in linguistic communication as powerful and appropriate to selling as these two models. The questioning techniques in this chapter have been developed from these original ideas to be of practical use in building a business.

To learn how to take advantage of these language patterns is like learning to drive a car. You do not need to understand why or how they work to be totally competent using them. You do, however, need someone who can teach you these skills without using jargon, making them practical and of immediate effect to a business person. Then a little practice and feedback from your own experience of applying them will lead to a rapidly growing confidence, refinement and habitual use.

Let us look at how people selling often dig themselves into a hole with the wrong question.

Sales person: Would you like to give me an order then?

Future Client: Thanks for calling but I’ll leave it for now.

Sales person: Can I ask why that is?

Future Client: Because….

Most sales people regularly ask ‘why’ questions, particularly when up against a rejection. This produces in the prospect a virtually automatic response beginning with because. That in turn produces all the reasons why not to buy. And while the future client is speaking his mental state has gone into ‘I do not want to buy’ mode, and continually searches for more and more reasons for his decision. This has the effect of making him even more convinced that it was a right decision. Then the Sales person produces the ‘buts’ and starts stressing benefits, sounding more and more desperate as the sale becomes harder and harder to retrieve.

Instead, try opening his mind. Better still, expand it by concentrating on owning your products or enjoying your services. Replace why questions with:

‘What positive benefits do you think could happen if you did buy from us?’

‘What is the one thing you need to know in order to be interested?’

‘What exactly can I do for you’?

‘What would I have to do to win your business?’

These questions will get you out of the ping-pong ‘he says, you say’ mentality and lead the conversation somewhere fruitful. Try it and see what happens. They may well lead to objections, which is good, as in order to manage objections you first need to establish what they are. From that information you can determine the right key that will let the customer in.

B) Selling Is Simple

I know an entrepreneur who set up her own office products company. At the final stage of the recruitment process she would send her candidates to a known ‘tough’ customer. If they succeed and get an order they get the job. Recently they were recruiting and I enquired as to the progress of the candidates.

The first one tried the ‘nice guy, I am your friend’ approach. He introduced himself, talked around the subject to get the prospect relaxed. When he had accomplished this he asked lots of questions in a very soft way, questions that led the prospect to answers requiring the use of his products as the solution. He was surprised therefore when he gave a closing question that the prospect said: ‘Thanks for coming I will bear you in mind when I am next ordering.’ He had made the mistake of asking a question beginning ‘Why…’. This was, of course, responded to with an answer starting ‘Because…’, and all the resistance came out.

The second Sales person had a different approach. He believed all a customer was really interested in was the best possible price. He said hello and went into a presentation emphasising that his quality products were the most competitively priced and that he guaranteed that he would beat any competitor. His closing question was equally straightforward: ‘So what do you say?’ He got an even more straightforward answer: ‘No’. He then went through again what were to him the unbeatable benefits to the prospect. Alas, to no avail. He left bemused and baffled, believing that a competitor had already got better prices somewhere else.

The third sales representative was a lady who had built a reputation for winning in very difficult situations. She introduced herself and very professionally asked a series of questions eliciting a lot of useful information. She finished with what is known as the alternative close, ‘Would you prefer delivery on Mondays or Fridays? The prospect used to teach English and immediately recognised the presupposition as a selling technique. He replied: ‘Would you prefer I turn you down now or at the end of the week?’ He’d clearly got her. If she had laughed and admitted her attempt to close, she would still have stood a chance. However, she ‘lost her cool’ and made fumbled attempts to cover her tactics. ‘Sorry, what do you mean… I was just asking… to find out.’ She was not convincing.

The fourth sales representative, knowing of the previous candidate’s failure, went up to the prospect and said: ‘I know that many sales people have tried to get your business and failed. Can I ask you just one simple question?’ ‘Yes, go ahead.’ ‘What would I have to do in order to win your business?’ The prospect told him. ‘Not try to use any fancy closing techniques to trap me into buying. All I want to see is your products, your prices and to be convinced that I will receive good, honest service.’ The representative said: ‘Here is a sample of a product. They are £25 each and I will do whatever it takes within my power to keep you as a satisfied customer.’ He got the order.

The one right question will have the effect of a cruise missile. Straight to the target with the desired result.

Unseen by the successful representative, an observer had been watching the discourse and had noticed some absolutely amazing things about the two’s body language, postures, tones of voice, words, linguistic patterns and even breathing. He went up to the representative and asked him if he had done this deliberately or by intuition. More on that in the next chapter.

C) What Can Questions Achieve?

Before you read further, write down twelve potential benefits arising from asking the right questions in a sales situation.













The following is a list of answers produced by a cross-sectional group from a recent seminar. How do they compare to your answers?

Establishing facts

Qualifying potential customers

Establishing requirements

Establishing individual needs

Identifying decision-makers

Identifying decision influencers

Discovering personality type of future client

Establishing size of budget

Establishing price constraints

Establishing the target’s position with regard to competitors

Revealing motivation (‘hot buttons’)

Establishing relationships

Determining whether one-off or ongoing customer potential

Discovering external relationships

Helping to create rapport

Opportunities for listening and observing

Enabling understanding and clarification

Test closing



Communicating embedded commands

Tag questions*

Changing customer’s ‘state of mind’

Establishing presuppositions.

A tag question makes a statement and then ties your agreement in. Adding a tag question to the end of a statement makes it stronger in the listener’s mind. For example:
The products are good, aren’t they?

We all like good value, don’t we?

Value For Money is important, isn’t it?

Speed of delivery is an important issue, isn’t it?

The products meet the specification, don’t they?

They are best used when reflecting back something that the prospect has said. He cannot therefore disagree and you are creating a run of affirmatives.

Your main task in a sales presentation is to find out how you can help the future client. This you do with questioning but not any old questions. They have to direct the prospect’s mind to where you want to get to, eliciting information and then using this information to open the client’s mind to new choices. The real talent, once you have an armoury of precision questions, is to know what questions to ask and clear the fog, red herrings etc, along the way. This is best done by having a clear outcome in mind before you start. You have to find out what is happening in their mind, not yours. To them this is reality, irrespective of any evidence to the contrary. Don’t fall into the trap of making assumptions; instead use the homing questions that I am going to teach you. Your challenge is to elicit clarity through questions and then to make an offer in the client’s own language in their own reality.

For example, questions to elicit the real needs of a future client should be something like the following. Notice that they have in built checks that they are the core needs.

For what purpose?

What will that do for you?

What will that allow you to do?

What do you want from a….?

What are you looking for in a….?

How will you know when you have….?

What’s important to you about?

What do you value most in a….?

D) Our Own Perception of The World

The words that we all use during a conversation are not the experiences themselves. They are just the best verbal representation we can come up with. This is worth bearing in mind the next time that you have put a question to a prospect and are listening to his response. How precise is he?

The principal aim of your sales presentation is to elicit information to enable you to offer a deal that will be accepted by your prospect. If you don’t get the right information your persuasive efforts will miss their mark and leave you without the sale. The questioning techniques taught in this book will give you the linguistic technology to home in on the specific information necessary to close a deal. Have you ever been confident of winning an account only to be surprised to learn that it went to the competition? That is because your questioning wasn’t precise enough to uncover the buyer’s strategies, motivation and needs. Or your understanding of the words he was using had a different meaning in his mind than it did in yours. Someone did it better.

For example, in the future customer’s mind, “I don’t want to buy from this Sales person, because the last time that I bought this sort of product the quality was poor. This led to the production line being stopped meaning thousands of pounds worth of product were written off. When I contacted the then sales rep he didn’t want to know. From now on I’ll be wary of an attractive looking price and have ‘quality’ and ‘after sales service’ as my top priorities.”

Future customer: ‘Good Morning, what have you got to offer me?’

Sales Rep: ‘Good Morning, A great product range at prices that beat all of our competitors. How does that sound?’…

The Sales Rep continues, totally missing the mark. The challenge to the Sales person is to uncover the first paragraph from the sentence that he receives. So the first step is to ask intelligent and precise questions with a clear outcome in mind (you are not there just to make friends).

Bear in mind that the value of a well chosen question is lost if you do not listen attentively to the response. In this context, remember that listening also means attention to tonality and careful observation of the speaker.

There are three types of homing-in or targeting question, barrier breakers, bridge builders and confusion clearers.

E) Barrier Breakers

Absolute barriers come in two main forms which I will refer to as ‘brick walls’ and ‘sweeping statements’, as further explained below.

Brick Walls

Examples of ‘brick walls’ are:

I can’t give you the order.

I can’t change suppliers at this time.

I won’t consider using you again.

The targeting questions to deal with these must challenge assumptions about the past or habitual buying behaviour and introduce new options in the prospect’s mind:

What would happen if you did?

How do you stop yourself from…?

Sweeping Statements

Examples of sweeping statements are:

I have never been satisfied buying insurance.

All salesmen in my experience tell lies.

Every purchase I make is through Bloggs & Co.

I always buy on the basis of lowest price.

When a future client makes such a statement, it is very rare for it to be true in the client’s mind for all occasions. By getting them to show you the exception you can prise it open, offering choices to the client that were not there before.

Targeting Questions to deal with these would be along the following lines:





Has there ever been a time when….?

Bear in mind a statement that the prospect makes will often provide choices as to what may be challenged. The real talent is deciding which question asked is most likely to lead the prospect to the desired outcome.

F) Bridge Builders

Sometimes customer resistance is expressed in language that can be turned to your advantage, enabling you to pick on a point of expression and build a ‘bridge’ to cross the divide the customer is creating, and progress the dialogue. Examples are set out below:

Vague Nouns And Verbs

Statement: ‘I want a better deal?’

Targeting question: ‘What deal exactly would you like?’

Statement: ‘He ripped me off.’

Targeting question: ‘How exactly did he rip you off?’

Nouns Made Out Of Verbs.

A verb is alive, dynamic, open to change. A noun is fixed, rigid, lifeless, unchangeable. We can therefore put life back in by changing the noun back to a verb. For example:

Statement: ‘I have made my decision.’

Targeting question: ‘How exactly did you decide?’

Missing People

Sometimes customers will make statements indicating that a third party has an influence on the decision. For example:

Statement: ‘We’ll think about this and come back to you.’

Targeting question: ‘That’s great, may I just ask who “we” are exactly?’

Missing Information


‘I am not convinced. ‘

‘I am undecided. ‘

Targeting questions:

‘About What?’

‘About Whom?’

Missing Comparisons.

Customers may make use of comparatives or superlatives with no mention of who you are being compared with.

Statement: ‘Bloggs products are better. ‘

Targeting question: ‘Better, in what way?’

Statement: ‘Bloggss’ products are best.’

Or,‘Your product is too expensive.’

Targeting question: ‘In comparison to what or whose?’

G) Confusion Clearers

Sometimes the customer will make a statement which is confused, or makes unwarranted assumptions.

Tied Statements

This is where two statements are ostensibly linked but the link between them has not been established and needs challenging.

Statement: ‘I cannot decide today because my Purchasing Manager is out.’

Targeting question: ‘How does his being out stop you from making a decision?’

Opinionated Statements

This is the case where opinions, values and judgements are given with out any supporting evidence. The source of the value needs to be recovered.

Statement: ‘You will say anything to get the order. ‘

Targeting question: ‘I am curious to know, what leads you to believe that?’

Mind Readers

Sometimes customers will indicate they know another person’s thoughts on a matter.

Statement: ‘My MD wouldn’t like me to change suppliers. ‘

Targeting questions: ‘How do you know that?’

Or, ‘What leads you to believe that?’

Cause And Effect

Statement: ‘Because of current policy I am restricted in my options.’

Targeting question: ‘How specifically does current policy restrict you?’


Sometimes a customer will make a statement including an incorrect presumption, or presupposition.

Statement: ‘I cannot make a decision until I have your discount rates.’

Targeting question: ‘What leads you to believe I have discount rates?’

Note that as well as challenging presuppositions in others, you too can use presuppositions or presumptions for your own purposes. They are persuasive because they make linguistic short cuts in the future client’s mind. Consider the following:

Did you know that…?

Are you aware that…?

Perhaps you have already heard that…?

Have you ever noticed the fact that…?

Would it be fair to say that…?

Would you agree with me that…?

Would you agree with the experts that…?

Difficult not to answer ‘yes’ to questions beginning with these words. Consider that you have not even heard the content yet and you are already agreeing. So will your future client. They are presuppositions because what follows is already established as fact.

This technique is even more powerful if you incorporate something the future client has already told you:

‘Since you have already met the representatives from my competitors, would it be fair to say that if I can come up with a product that totally satisfies your needs at a competitive price you could make a decision today?’

The ‘alternative close’ also involves a presupposition:

‘Would you prefer this model in red or blue?’

This presupposes that you are going to buy.

Consider the following questions. Can you identify the presuppositions?

How easily can you make a choice today?

Are you still interested in a new car?

When would you like to begin to consider the alternatives?

Have you allocated your budget yet?

How many of the beneficial points that you have learned today do you plan on sharing with your staff this week?

Have you noticed how well this car matches your personality?

What would it take for you to make a decision today?

Progress Now:

Think of three presuppositions that you could use in your sales presentation:




Remember, the effect of a presupposition depends on the level of rapport. If you do not have rapport the question might not be answered at all. It is only necessary that the prospect thinks of an answer even at a subconscious level for it to have it’s affect.

H) There Is Always An Easier Way!

Some students were having a charity race. The participants had to get to Aberdeen from Oxford without any money and without using public transport. For everybody who achieved it within 12 hours £200 was donated to charity, within 24 hours £100 and within the weekend £25.

The different approaches to this problem by various students were incredible. Out of 145 entrants only five completed the task winning the £200 for charity. Their approaches varied. One student chose to hitchhike. Nothing original in that – however, he was a mathematics student and he contacted the RAC and gained detailed information on traffic flows. Armed with this knowledge he did not hitch in the same way as he would have driven. Those who went as they would have driven, were delayed by traffic congestion and failed to meet the deadline. Another student contacted a car factory in Cowley and offered to deliver a car to Scotland free of charge. They were very pleased! At the end of the weekend the student’s union had calls from all over Britain, one even from Wales. How did he get there? The losers had lots of good reasons why they were disadvantaged or unlucky. The winners didn’t think of it as much of an achievement. It was easy for them.

Now, let us see how we can get to our objective by the shortest route, by looking at two examples.

Future client ‘Your product is too expensive.’

Sales person: ‘Compared to what?’

Future client: ‘Well, compared to our present supplier, brand X.’

Sales person: ‘How exactly does that product compare to mine?’

Future client: ‘I don’t know exactly.’

Sales person: ‘That’s interesting. What would you do if you were convinced that our product was of higher quality.’

Future client: ‘I’d consider it, I guess if you proved that it was better quality.’

Sales person: ‘What exactly could I do that would satisfy you beyond doubt that my product is of better quality?’

Future client: ‘Well, if we used them in our factory, under our working conditions and the defective rate was significantly improved.’

Sales person: ‘What exactly would that be worth to you?’

We have steered the conversation from generalisations to specifics. Now we are in a position to offer our solutions that meet the client’s true needs, not just the apparent needs, in this case a lower price.

There is always a question you can ask that will lead you to the business.

The second example is an ordering problem:

Future client: ‘I have had a problem in the past when ordering new components.’

Sales person: ‘A problem in ordering what specifically?’

Future client: ‘Well, it’s just that the quality has not always been what it could.’

Sales person: ‘How exactly has the quality been lacking?’

Future client: ‘You know, early failure of parts, defective units, that kind of thing.’

Sales person: ‘Which parts in particular?’

Future client: ‘Well now that you mention it, it seems to always be the control dials that are faulty.’

Sales person: ‘What control dials’ are you using?’

Future client: ‘The Science Systems RX400 series mainly.’

Sales person: ‘On what applications do you use the RX400?’

Future client: ‘On radios.’

Sales person: ‘On all of the radios?’

Future client: ‘No, not really on all.’

Sales person: ‘On which ones then?’

Future client: ‘On the class A and B radios.’

Sales person: ‘Let me touch base. Your main problem at the moment is to do with the control knobs on the Class A and B radios. Otherwise there are no major areas for concern at the moment?’

Future client: ‘Yes, that’s right.’

Sales person: ‘OK. What would it be worth to your company to have a reliable source of control knobs for these classes of radio?’

Future client: ‘Well, I suppose if they were reliable we would have less stoppages, which is our hidden cost. However we have used other suppliers before and never had the reliability we wanted.’

Sales person: ‘Has there ever been a time of smooth production flow using these components?’

Future client: ‘Well, now that you mention it before our present supplier was taken over, quality was better. But we were paying higher prices then.’

Sales person: ‘How does the previous higher price compare with the current additional price of stoppages?’

Future client: ‘Mmm. I see your point.’

Sales person: ‘OK. Let me tell you what I propose, and see what you think. My company’s market research department has reported a lot of dissatisfaction from purchasers like yourself. The recession has made us all cost and price conscious in order to be competitive. In order to keep prices competitive, many companies have had to reduce their costs, which means that standards of quality have had to be compromised. The result is while some products appear cheaper in the short run, they can be considerably higher in the long run. Recognising this trend, our company’s policy has been the opposite to our competitors. We have invested in R & D instead of cuts and employed rigorous quality control standards in our factories. We believe, looked at over the long run, our products are the best value for money on the market. Can I suggest that you try us out in order to see for yourself?’

Future client: ‘Yes, Okay.’

Sales person: ‘What evidence would you need to know beyond reasonable doubt that our products were more suitable for your needs?’

Progress Now:

Respond to these statements with a targeting question.

1. The competition has a better product.

2. If I get an attractive offer, I’ll probably take it.

3. I can’t do that at the moment.

4. I can’t make a decision over the phone.

5. I never buy anything before thinking it over.

6. All you entrepreneur types promise the earth, but don’t deliver.

7. I am looking for something different.

Progress Now:

Write your own empowering versions of these ‘self ask’ questions.

1. How can I take total control of my sales results?

2. What is the most valuable question I can ask? (To yourself prior to a sales presentation)

3. What would I have to do in order to win your business? (During a tough presentation when you are coming up against resistance. Notice the hidden presupposition.)

4. How can I win this account?

5. What could I change in order to win your business?

6. What can I do today to excel?

7. How can I turn the situation to my advantage?

With the knowledge of what you have learnt, what new closing questions can you think of that are relevant for your business?

Before your next call, take a few moments to consider exactly what you hope to learn and accomplish. Then, based on the customer and situation, prepare a series of questions designed to elicit the responses you seek. Try them out in advance on colleagues and friends. You might be surprised at the reaction to what you thought was the ‘perfect’ questions.

As a final tip always pre-think your questions; for phone work, have them printed and in front of you for quick reference. For example, when trying to get through secretaries, ‘Would you put me through to Mr Smith, please?’ is stronger than ‘Is Mr Smith available?’

The real question is why are you waiting to call us. Make that call now on 0203-6759099 and challenge us to come up with a solution that accelerates your sales growth cost effectively!