The Curious Case of Curiosity in Selling

What’s the top, number one, single greatest factor affecting success in sales?

There are often multiple answers to questions like that, because all the prime candidates overlap similar territory. You might argue for a can-do attitude, or customer focus, or a committed team.

Let me make the case for curiosity.

Imagine being in a constant state of heightened curiosity when you are with, doing work for, and thinking about your customers. What would that look like?

The answers fall into two broad categories, I think:

1. If you were curious on your customer’s behalf, you would:

• Notice an awful lot of things about their people, products and customers
• Formulate many hypotheses
• Ask a lot of questions to pursue those hypotheses
• Want to know lots of things on general principle: preferences, history, culture, practices
• Be other-focused

2. And while you were being curious, you would spend less time on:

• Worrying about how to get the sale
• Worrying about how to speed a decision, or close, or qualify a lead
• Trying to portray yourself in ways you assume will influence the customer

Now here’s the punch line. Most approaches to selling tell you to ask a lot of questions—basically like the first category.

But they also tell you to worry about that second category. In fact, they say the sole purpose of all questions is to get the sale. Most sales approaches say you absolutely should worry about getting the sale, speeding a decision, qualifying, etc. Which kills curiosity.

Curiosity says, to hell with that. Curiosity says, the purpose of questions is to find out what could be: what could be better, what the right thing is, what the customer should do.

The paradox, of course, is that curiosity-driven selling just plain works better. It works better because the questions are grounded in the customer’s world, not the sales person’s needs.

The linear, process-driven, metrics-based approach to selling that has become so prevalent has many virtues, but one gigantic, glaring defect: By trying to maximize the sale, it has devalued the customer—thereby reducing sales effectiveness (insert ironic music here).

Curiosity may have killed some cat once upon a time; but it serves salespeople well. Curiosity isn’t a sales tactic. Done right, sales are a natural byproduct of being curious.  There’s something very simple and right about that.

16 replies
  1. barbara garabedian
    barbara garabedian says:

    AMEN, Charlie! 

    Curiosity trumps canned methodologies any-day. Isn’t it curious that so many don’t "get it" . Could it be beause its just too darn simple?

  2. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    The "too simple" suggestion is quite plausible. 

    I think one of the main reasons you don’t see any "selling" courses in MBA programs is because academics can’t figure out how to academicize selling.  Sales management, sales research, sales tracking, yes–but selling per se, no.  The implicit belief here is "if you can’t measure it, you can’t study it or teach it."  Which of course begs the question "how do companies do it," because they most assuredly have to.

    Many companies, absent academic institutions who teach it, turn to quasi-academic programs, which provide the "models" I talk about in the post.  But a great many more do what’s always been done: the apprenticeship model.  There’s a lot to be said for getting received wisdom, aka commonsnse, at the feet of those who’ve been successful doing it. 

  3. Sam Bloomfield
    Sam Bloomfield says:

    I certainly agree that curisoisty leads to more creative solitons and focses the "salesperson" on the client problem. Curisoity also requires a degree of recipocity and with out that you can be as innovative, cretive and curious as you want and they may very well fall on deaf ears.

  4. Robert Graham
    Robert Graham says:


    Thanks for your great regular postings. I like both the insights you bring as well as the depth and variety of the content.

    Your post on curiosity in selling makes a great point for being genuinely interested in your client. However, I have to challenge the statement that, "Done right, sales are a natural byproduct of being curious."

    While I agree that looking out for the the interests and success of your clients  is critical, I know far too many salespeople who err on too much curiosity and too little selling. They know everything possible about their client, industry and their childrens’ birthdays but fail to move the sales process along.

    As a sales professional and trainer for 17 years, my suggestion is a heavy dose of curiosity combined with an equal dose of staying in contact, providing value and asking for the business (where appropriate).

    Robert Graham

  5. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    Thanks for your comments and for taking the time to write.  It’s interesting to me that in your experience you find "far too many salespeople who err on too much curiosity…"  My experience is different, but I’d hazard a guess that may be due to different clientele.  Mine have disproportionately been professional services and technical audiences, where curiosity tends to get buried by a desire to appear competent; there, I find the frequency to be less than you have found.

    Regardless, I quite agree with your balanced recommendations.  It may be a little flip of me to simply say sales are a byproduct of curiosity; perhaps it’d be more accurate to say something like "if you can get out of your own way enough to be curious, then you’ve got a chance to develop a relationship of equals, where you can make concrete suggestions and recommendations, including the recommendation to act by buying.  It starts with getting out of your own head and getting into the other’s–by being curious about what’s going on there."  Or something like that.  What do you think?

  6. Robert Graham
    Robert Graham says:

    Well said, Charles. I think it is the combination that makes the potent salesperson. You are right that there is often a heavy focus on the questioning part of the sales process and to your point, I think what is most important it what underlies your questions and approach.

    One of the actions I recommend to salespeople is to think about your prospect and their business and challenges and come up with ideas to help them that are not tied to your fees or services. Call or email them and say, "I was thinking about what we talked about yesterday, and I have an idea for you…"

    By going through this process, you give them value, show that you get their business, build the relationship and are able to stay in touch with them without the painful "are you ready to move forward?" follow-up calls.

    Robert Graham

  7. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    I could go on for pages about how great your suggestion is–coming up with an idea to help that is not tied to your own fees or services.  Here are just a few reasons that is a fabulous idea, in addition to the reasons you gave:

    1. it makes the seller realize it’s the relationship, not the product, that sells
    2. it shocks the customer, in a positive way–reframes their expectations and view of you
    3. it proves you can focus on things outside your own self and your own product
    4. even if planned or canned, it shows you’ve got processes that respect the customer
    5. it resets the agenda of all meetings going forward
    6. it differentiates from you, oh, everyone else
    7. it is the best possible excuse for a follow-up call
    8. if it’s a good idea, you gain enormous respect
    9. if it was a reasonable idea, even if not right, you still get credit
    10. if it’s a reasonable but wrong idea, the customer will be delighted to spend time educating someone with the guts and caring to take a shot–result, relationship
    11. it’s totally the right thing to do.




  8. Dave Stein
    Dave Stein says:


    I’m happy you raised this, Charlie. 

    We’ve considered curiosity a required competency for many sales people when our clients create profiles for specific sales jobs.  I don’t need to repeat the reasons.  You said them perfectly.

    With due respect to Robert’s comment, I don’t believe you can teach a salesperson to be curious.  You can simulate it by giving them check lists of things to ask about, but that won’t get the job done for the long term.  Right now I’m convinced curiosity is in your DNA or it isn’t. 

  9. Barbara Garabedian
    Barbara Garabedian says:

    David, I’m in your camp…you’re either naturally curious and genuinely interested about what makes the world around you tick…or you’re not!

    Robert, my experiences are similar to Charlie’s. That said, I take your point about knowing a lot about a client but unable to move the sale along.  I’ve seen many an SME ask a million canned questions but unable to "see the forest from the trees". One can ask lots of questions & have a data bank filed w/ "stuff" about a client but to what point???  As you stated, whats most important is what underlies the questions & approach. If one is genuinely interested in the client’s world, then one can turn the snippets of disconnected data into useful information and then into engaging dialogue. 

  10. Ilya Bodner
    Ilya Bodner says:

    Very true.  This article nails it.  The less pressure you have on the client, the more likely you will have greater opportunities in front of you.




    Ilya Bodner

    • Arthur T Williams IV
      Arthur T Williams IV says:

      I don’t think the article ‘nails it’ at all. I didn’t find any real examples of how curiosity helps you make a sale. Just a statement that it does.

      • Charles H. Green
        Charles H. Green says:


        Thanks for joining the conversation, particularly on an old post.
        Re Bodner’s comment on the article “nailing” it, very few of my posts deal with data. That’s largely even true with my books.

        Instead, starting with The Trusted Advisor, they have aimed to be more “wisdom” books, aimed at articulating points of view, and providing perspective. That’s not to say they’re devoid of facts at all – I’ve been on the planet over six decades, most of that in the business environment (and more all the time).

        So when I assert things like “curiosity improves selling,” what I’m saying is, “check this out against your own experience. It’s what I’ve found to be true, but what about you?”

  11. Paul Gage
    Paul Gage says:

    Let’s turn this entire concept of us being curious as salespeople and asking a bunch of investigative questions to show our prospect that we are interested in their business.  Asking a bunch of questions is great but it won’t happen if you are unable to get the prospect curious about you and your business.  If you really want to boost your sales and effectiveness approaching people and getting them interested in you, you need to learn how to make them curious.  Get them wanting to ask you questions about how you can help them.  Curiosity is the fuel to starting the sales process.  If you call someone, and they are not interested or curious about you, then forget about any opporunities of asking that person questions.

    I have been selling for years and my sales have been off the charts because I get prospect curious about what I can do for them.  There are many strategies to pique a persons curiousity?  I bet you are curious to what those techniques are???

    Paul Gage

  12. Barbara Garabedian
    Barbara Garabedian says:

    You bring up a good point Paul…curiosity does work for both sides. That said, I still believe the natural & genuine curiosity of the salesperson regarding the "how & why" of a specific business or that individual, etc. is the key…and most everything else springboards off of that.


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