This article was first published in

It was a moment most salespeople could appreciate. On April 13, 2004, President George W. Bush held a press conference at which he was asked, “What would you say your biggest mistakes have been and what have you learned from them?”

The question left the President a bit tongue-tied and he finally left the question up to historians to decide.

I’m confident Bush knew the features and benefits, so to speak, of his presidency by rote. He likely had answers for a wide variety of specific questions that could be asked. But when faced with a large, open-ended question, he froze. A seemingly simple question became the toughest.

If I asked, “Which sales question would you say is the toughest one to answer?” Different people may have different candidates, but I suspect we’d all rate this one pretty high: “Why should we buy from you?”

It is this large, open-ended query that generally produces a poor answer.

Most of us end up fumbling through some rehashed version of our elevator speech, or website, or brochure. Those answers often end up sounding hollow and canned.

And no wonder! The question itself is a setup. The customer doesn’t always mean it as a setup—but it is nonetheless.

Here’s why. The question almost certainly demands an answer based on you—your services, your product, your business. But any answer that’s all about you is simply not going to fly. People buy for their own particular reasons—not yours.

And yet, you probably can’t give a customer-based answer either. This isn’t a question that comes up after a long relationship, this is a question for the courtship, and at that stage the truth is you honestly don’t know enough about the customer to give a credible answer.

So there you are, set up like a bowling pin; precluded from giving a good answer, just waiting to get knocked down. Is there no hope?

Yes, there is hope, and it’s very simple. Tell the truth.

The truth is, only a deeply customer-based answer is going to work, and you don’t know the customer well enough to know what that answer is. So that question needs reframing. Here’s what it might sound like.

Customer: So, tell us this. Why should we buy from you?

You: Honestly, it would be arrogant of me at this point to say why you should buy from us. I’m not even sure you should buy from us, much less why.

What I can tell you right now is why certain people buy from us, and why certain people don’t buy from us. I can also give you an idea of why others buy from our competitors, and why some don’t.

That’s not bluster. Some customers put a great deal of emphasis on flexibility, others value clarity of contracts. I don’t know which you value more. And that’s just one small component; I’d be happy to list the issues we need to talk about in order to learn who you should buy from.

Nobody is better than everyone else across every single dimension—including us. So it’s critical we talk about your various needs to determine who your best supplier is. If we sit down and talk honestly about what’s important to you, together we’ll learn whether my company is your the best supplier.

So let’s get to work. Let’s start working to figure out who you should buy from.

Some salespeople will applaud this example and some may deride the answer. But clients will find the thorough and honest examination refreshing.