Answer the Question

Q. What do you do when your client or customer asks you a question?

A. Why, answer the question, of course! (Doh!)

But – what if the question itself is flawed, or incomplete, or dangerous to answer?

For example:


  • What if a potential client wants to know the price before you have explained the value?
  • What if a client demands to know the final recommendation before going through the analysis?
  • What if a client phrases a question as a simple “go or no-go” when the issue requires nuance?
  • What if a potential client asks you a very pointed and narrow question about your qualifications?

Then what do you do?

On the one hand, if you answer the question directly, you risk giving an incomplete answer. You open yourself up to a ‘gotcha’ question. Worse, you legitimize a partial or even misleading question by the mere act of responding to it.

On the other hand, if you don’t answer the question, you risk offending the client. Worse, you look like you’re trying to hide something. And, it’s likely to come off as just disrespectful.

How can you avoid disrespecting the client, while not opening yourself up to an unfair and premature judgment?

How to Answer the Question

There is a way out of this dilemma. Better yet, it not only avoids a negative – it actually helps build trust. Here’s what you say:

  1. Flatly and simply answer the direct question you were asked
  2. Pause
  3. If necessary, offer to answer more questions

Here are some examples: then I’ll talk about why they work.

Client: Before we dive into specifics of the situation, I want to know the price on this project.

You: Depending on several issues, around $225,000.


Client: Um, depending on what, for example?


Client: Before you go on to page three of the presentation, I want to know: do you recommend we close the factory, or not?

You: We recommend you close it.


Client: OK, why?


Client: How much experience do you have doing marketing studies for tech services companies?

You: Two prior clients in the past 18 months.

[Pause] [More Pause]

You: Is there something else it would be useful to talk about?


Note the critical role in the dialogue of the [Pause]. In the first two cases, the client is the one who fills in the quiet space. In the third – after making extra-sure of the pause – you fill in the space, by respectfully offering to answer any more questions

The Text and the Sub-text

That’s the text. The sub-text is what’s critical here.

First, the answer. It has to be simple, specific, and directly responsive. That’s because the critical sub-text is all about respect.

By being simple, specific and responsive, you are conveying to the client, “I am willing to let you take the lead here. I am not going to quibble about the relevance of your question, or its potential for revealing value. I am not going to ’spin’ my answer to suit my own needs, but rather will defer to your terms, as stated by you. I will not hedge, hem, nor haw. I respect your right, as the client, to set the agenda and ask the questions; I will reserve my own attempts to frame the issue until you are satisfied. I respect you.”

One effect of showing respect by being simple, specific and responsive is that you reduce the level of fear and aggression in the client. You are demonstrating that this conversation does not have to be a competition, and the client need have no fear about you attempting to control them.

The other effect is to validate the client, to show them that they have asked a fair question, and that you have given a fair answer. Presuming fairness and reciprocating in kind appeals to the client’s innate tendency to return like for like – fairness for fairness – vs. engaging in passive-aggressive games of controlling the agenda.

Second, the Pause. The subtext of the pause is, again, respect. It allows the client to control the agenda (by following up, by taking a new tack, or by simply abandoning the question). This offer of control is another trigger for reciprocity on the part of the client.

Usually – as in the first two examples above – the client will fill in the pause. And their response will usually be tempered by the respect you have already shown them in the simple, specific and responsive answer.

Occasionally – as in the third example above – the pause continues long enough for it to be appropriate for you to offer another comment – and yet another opportunity to show respect. You do this by making explicit what was already implicit – that you are willing to answer any questions, and to respect the client’s right to frame those questions in any form they may want.

The Result

In most cases, this “onslaught of respect” is enough to alter the tone of the entire meeting. Instead of being cautious, suspicious, and aggressive, the client is likely to reciprocate and return the favor. (The fundamental nature of reciprocity was never better phrased than by Robert Cialdini: take a listen to this podcast interview of Cialdini by Barry Ritholtz).

You can call this dynamic “give to get,” or “trust to be trusted,” or “mxqtplskz;” what you call it doesn’t matter. What matters is that by treating a loaded question with respect, you can transform the context within which that question is being asked, and thus transform the relationship.

All by just responding to the question simply and specifically – and pausing to show even more respect.

The next time a client asks you a tough question, just try it. [Pause].

Riding the Shark: Vanquishing Fear in Selling. Part 1 of 4

photo by: Steve GarnerThis is the first of a four-part blogpost series. In Part 2, we’ll discuss the 4 types of fear. In Part 3, I’ll go over how to fend off the sharks of fear. And in Part 4, you’ll learn how to shark-proof your market and vanquish fear altogether.

There are many ways to think about sales and selling. You can focus on value propositions, sales processes, sales management, motivation, techniques, and models. I’d like to focus on something else that’s common in sales – fear.

Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back in the Market 

Remember the first time you saw the movie Jaws? The tale of a giant shark tapped into a primal human fear. The follow-on, Jaws 2, raised the ante with one of the most famous taglines in movie history – “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.”

Who could look at the beach again without some kind of shiver? Selling has some of that same flavor. We’ve all had some negative experience in selling – and like Jaws, it keeps some sort of control over us ever after. “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the market…” is all too real.

All kinds of selling involve some fear. Some forms of selling involve more fear than others.  Fear comes in many flavors; the form it takes varies by industry, by products being sold, and of course by the individual salesperson. There are multiple ways to deal with fears. None is always better than the others; and often more than one approach is necessary to overcome fear.

Fear is the Enemy

But with all this diversity around fear, one thing is unambiguously clear: fear is the enemy. Fear destroys sales. It separates you from your customers, makes you behave in narrow ways, lowers the value you can add, and in a thousand ways cuts your sales effectiveness.

Some may disagree.

  • Some say, “Fear helps keep me on edge, sharp, focused.” But if you require fear to keep you sharp and focused, then you lack any positive customer-based motivation. That means you’re sub optimizing – for your customers, and for yourself.
  • Some say, “Fear keeps me on my toes, always looking around for new trends and issues.” But if you seek new trends and issues only to assuage your own fears, then simply feeling comfortable will make you oblivious to trends and issues.
  • Some say, “Fear gives me adrenaline, energy, passion, things that my customers pick up on and love.” Note that drug addicts and alcoholics also believe that they are flat, boring and uninteresting unless hopped up. Are you different?

No. Fear, in all cases, is the enemy. If you’re fearful, you’re not selling as well as you can. And if you’re not selling as well as you can, someone else will. And you should be afraid of that. (And if you are, you increase the odds of precisely the thing you fear, because fear of fear is just as destructive as any other kind).

Unless you can ride the shark – vanquish your fears – you will always be sub-optimal and at risk – always afraid to go back in the water. It’s a lousy way to live.

It also doesn’t have to be that way. That’s what this four-blogpost series is about.

In the second post, The Four Sharks, I’ll tell you where to look for fear in sales. The first rule in shark-fighting (unlike Fight Club) is – we talk about Sharks. I’ll go through the Four Fears – the Big Sharks that account for about 95% of our fears. That should give you an acute sense of pain for just “where it hurts most” in terms of your fears, and help you zero in the issues unique to you, in your business, in your industry.

In the third post, Riding the Shark, I’ll go through solutions.  There are four of them, but they don’t match up one-on-one with the Four Sharks. Instead, they are comprehensive, and offer differing ways to fend off “shark attacks,” making you less vulnerable and more able to sell correctly.

In the last post, Shark-Proofing Your Market, I’ll write about what you need to replace fear – to stop being vulnerable to shark attacks altogether. Because you can’t just fight defensive battles all your career – you need to come from a place of security and confidence.

Stay tuned for the next three parts: and I welcome your comments about the subject in the meantime.

Meeting Price Objections from Trust

When the customer says, “I don’t know, that sounds kind of high to me…” what do you do? How does Trust-based Selling™ handle customers’ concerns regarding price?

First, note the sales jargon for this situation—it gets called “objection handling.” The wording is revealing. It suggests we have a conflict with our customer, an oppositional situation—their side is objecting to our side. And our job is to “handle” it. Kind of like a counter-move in wrestling.

But what if you’re trying to create a trust-based relationship with a customer? In that case, this isn’t about “objections,” much less “handling” them. Instead, it’s about a mutual inquiry as to whether joint value can be created—or not. Price is—at bare minimum—a simple and necessary part of the discussion.

But much more importantly, when we hear price comments as “objections,” we immediately jump to a place of high self-orientation—the trust-destroying denominator in the trust equation. Omigosh, they’re pushing back against me—I’ve got to counter-attack.

Thought one in responding from trust—it’s not about you. In fact, it’s never about you. It’s always about the customer. What looks like a threatening price objection is actually a great opportunity to learn something important about a customer, and a chance to add value right in the sales process itself. Here’s why.

Most price “objections” are simply expressions of dismay or concern—feelings—on the part of the customer. Most fall into five categories. Helping the customer identify these feelings and these categories is a positive help in and of itself. The actual words spoken can be identical: “— that sounds kind of high to me.” But they mask very different meanings:

The categories are:

1. Naïve. Uh oh, that’s way bigger than I thought. Subtext: "I feel ashamed; I didn’t understand what was involved in buying this product/service before talking to this person."

2. Out of Date. That’s more than we can afford. Subtext: "I feel embarrassed—I invited this person in thinking we could do it in this year’s budget. Now I see that won’t work."

3. Engineer. Wait a minute, I don’t see why it should be that much. Subtext: "That doesn’t make sense—they must be quoting me the fully-loaded version, let’s reverse engineer it."

4. Comparison Shopper. Hey wait—how do I know you’re not screwing me? Subtext: "I want to get a good deal, maybe not the best, but in the top half, so I need to know the real prices."

5. Bazaar Lover. Aha, the game is on! Subtext: "I don’t care what you quote me, I’m going to get 20% off! I love this part of the buying process!"

Each of these subtexts requires a very different response. The good news is—the responses are obvious. All we have to do as the seller is to ask! Ask the buyer what’s behind their words; what kind of concern are they expressing when they say, “I don’t know, sounds a little high to me.” What are they feeling?

Our job is simply to explain that all reasons are valid, and that we simply need to know which is operative here. Simply by stating them for what they are, buyers one and two feel relieved of their shame and embarrassment. And while this transaction won’t happen, you just vastly increased the odds of them buying from you in the future.

Number three becomes a simple job of itemizing features and costs—as long as we are not attached to the margin on every little feature. An easy sale.

Number four is solved by the willingness to be transparent, within the bounds of what’s legal. Another easy sale—as long as your price is fair.

Number five just wants to have fun. So build in a little upside, and be prepared to give a little more up; and enjoy yourself along with the buyer.

This is not about “handling objections.” It is about using curiosity and customer focus to build relationships. The profits follow—as long as we remember we’re supposed to be on the same side of the table as our customer, and in a relationship that is the sum of multiple transactions.