When Shouldn’t You Answer A Question?

By Rob Swette, Managing Partner, Sales Growth Associates | Sandler Training

Has this ever happened to you?

A seemingly “hot prospect” asks you a question that seems to signal interest in working with you. (For example: “How strict are you with quantity discounts?”) You’ve been taught to respond immediately to “buying signals,” and you’re sure you just got one. So you answer the question – at length and with sufficient thoroughness to resolve all past, present, or future ambiguity on the subject. Your contact nods and smiles. Then, for some mysterious reason, your “hot prospect” disengages.

The discussion, which had been going somewhere, suddenly isn’t. The chemistry that had seemed to be there vanishes. The momentum dissipates. When you offer to call again at a certain date and time, the prospect says he has to think about things and will be in touch.
What happened? What did you do wrong?
You answered the question instead of reversing.


To improve communications and avoid misinterpreting the intent of prospects’ questions or the meaning of their answers to your questions, David Sandler recommended that you ask for clarification instead of responding to the question as posed. For example, a prospect may ask, “How strict are you with quantity discounts?” when what he really wants to know is whether he can take advantage of a quantity discount and then arrange for a 14-day split shipment. Or someone may ask, “How much do you know about my company?” That may be meant to determine whether you’ve done your homework before calling on him. Or the prospect may simply be eager to tell you about his company—how he took it over when his father retired and how he doubled its revenue in three years. Someone who asks, “Have you ever worked for any of my competitors?” could be sizing up your experience in the industry … or fishing for inside information … or trying to make sure that you aren’t about to share sensitive data. You have no way of knowing.
These are “smoke-screen” questions. The prospect’s intention – what he really wants to know – is obscure. It’s a mistake to answer this kind of question without first clarifying the other person’s intention.

Wouldn’t it be nice to know the reasons behind these kinds of questions before you answer them? But you shouldn’t respond by demanding, “What’s your intention in asking that?” To simply ask prospects for the motive behind their questions can be a bit too abrupt. To avoid being perceived as confrontational, you must soften your question by preceding it with an appropriately named softening statement. Here’s an example: Prospect: Have you done work for any of my competitors? Salesperson: That’s a very interesting question. (Followed by a clarifying question.) Why do you ask? The softening statement, “That’s a very interesting question,” allows you to ease into the clarification question.
Other softening statements include:

    • I’m glad you asked me that.
    • That’s a good question.
    • Good point.
    • Many people ask me that.
    • I haven’t been asked that question for quite a while

David Sandler aptly called this strategy of responding to prospects’ smoke-screen questions (or any question for which the meaning or intent is unclear) with your own questions “reversing” … because doing so reverses the flow of information—from prospects to you, rather than from you to the prospects.
In almost all cases, when you apply a reversing strategy, prospects will reword or expand their question to reveal the motive behind it. It may take more than one reversing question, however, to fully expose the real question.
Some effective reversing questions include:

    • Why do you ask?
    • Why is that important? (And that’s important because…?)
    • What are you hoping I’ll tell you?
    • Why did you bring that up just now?
    • What are you really asking?


The next time you hear a question from a prospect whose motive is unclear to you, don’t just answer the question. Try using a softening statement. Then ask a reversing question – and wait for the answer. You’ll have better conversations, get better information about your prospect’s real situation, secure more next steps … and, last but not least, improve your closing numbers.

Rob Swette is Managing Partner of Sales Growth Associates | Sandler Training in Carlsbad
(760) 579-7316 | sga.sandler.com

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