Ask, Don't Tell: Using Power Questions to Win Over Prospects

By: Andrew Sobel

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of three articles on how to use power questions to develop clients for life. It is adapted from Andrew Sobel's new book Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others.

Do you ever head into an important client meeting and feel pressure to say just the right thing? If the meeting is with a prospect, you may also be convinced that the more persuasively you describe your expertise and answer their questions, the more impressed they will be.

However, what we ask is often more important than what we tell. The CEO of a $12 billion company summed it up neatly when he told me, "When someone walks into my office and is trying to market to me or sell something, I can always tell how experienced they are by the quality of the questions they ask."

I've heard the same message from hundreds of C-suite executives: the people who really impress them are the ones who ask the most thought-provoking questions.

It's been said that there are no "silver bullets" in business—no magic techniques that will dramatically accelerate your success. That may be true, but the ability to ask good questions comes close.

A good power question helps you uncover a prospect's most urgent needs. It cuts through the noise and gets right to the heart of the issue. It uncovers higher-level goals and aspirations. It helps reframe the problem and paves the way for your solution. It creates enthusiasm and interest. And it shows, in the most convincing way possible, that you're thoughtful and smart. Power questions, in short, are a key tool for building clients for life. They will make you vastly more effective with clients, whether it's the first or 100th meeting.

Let's look more closely at how you can improve your ability to use thoughtful questions in the very first stage of client development—when you're trying to win over a prospect.

There are many types of questions you can use in the selling process. I like to focus on two particular ones: credibility-building questions and questions that uncover the client's agenda.

Build Your Credibility

When you first meet with a potential client, you must establish your credibility and understand their underlying goals and needs. Our natural tendency is to do this by telling—by describing our company, our services, and the uniqueness of what we do. We try to talk them into believing how great we are. But these efforts fall flat. This excessive "telling" comes across as boastful and salesy. What's more, when we do ask questions, they are often overused clichés such as "What keeps you up at night?" or blunt questions like "What are your top three priorities?" More often than not, those questions—for a variety of reasons—annoy people.

The best way to build trust in your competence is to ask credibility-building questions. These are questions that implicitly demonstrate your experience while encouraging the client to talk about their issues. This is what the CEO mentioned above was talking about.

It requires good upfront research and planning to develop strong, credibility-building questions. Your questions will vary based on your particular client and industry, but they should sound like these:

  • "As I look at my other customers across the industry, they are all trying to convert fixed costs to variable costs. Some are focusing on a technology solution, others are streamlining their business processes, and a few are integrating both approaches. How would you characterize your efforts?
  • "How are you reacting to the new reporting requirements [i.e., to a trend or a new regulation]? Several of my largest clients have taken a wait-and-see attitude, but others are already conducting in-depth assessments..."
  • "Your CEO's speech to last month's industry conference certainly put a stake in the ground in terms of your international growth aspirations. How is this going to impact your talent acquisition and development efforts?

A credibility-boosting question, in short, explores the client's issues while implicitly demonstrating your knowledge, experience, and preparation for the meeting. The basic formula is to state an observation or point of view ("We find that ...") and then turn it over to the client ("How are you reacting to this? What approach are you taking to this?").

Understand the Client's True Agenda

A second essential objective with a prospect is to understand their issues. I like to call this their agenda. Every executive has an agenda of three to five critical business goals, needs, or priorities. They also have an agenda of personal priorities. Your job is to explore, understand, and add value to this agenda.

I once asked one of my clients, the most successful rainmaker at his company, what his secret was. "Andrew," he told me, "in my shirt pocket I have a folded sheet of paper. On it are the names of all my key clients. Next to each name I've written that executive's most important goals. My job in life is to help them accomplish those goals."

Remember, when you can connect to and support a higher-level goal, you get closer to being a trusted advisor. When you are focused on tactical needs only, you risk becoming just an expert for hire—a tradable commodity.

Depending on how much you know about the client, and how bold you are, there are many types of agenda-setting questions you can ask. One of the most direct is, "How will you be evaluated at the end of the year by your leadership? What metrics will be used?" The answer quickly reveals your client's agenda. It spells out what they are most focused on.

A second type of agenda-uncovering question focuses on the why. Clients often specify a particular service or intervention: "We need a training program" or "We need coaching." When they do, you must ask "Why?"—"Why do you want to do that?" or "Why have you decided that?" If you ask that, even four or five times, you will connect to the underlying need or goal. By expanding the conversation you will expand the potential engagement.

Here are some additional, illustrative agenda-setting questions you can adapt and use for your own particular set of clients. You might not ask these immediately in a first meeting, but you could ask them over the course of several meetings as you get deeper into conversation about their business and why they are even talking to you:

  • Where will your future growth come from?
  • How will you decide whether or not to … (make an important decision)?
  • What organizational or operational capabilities do you need to strengthen in order to support your future strategy?
  • You've cut costs substantially—where do you believe future improvements in performance will come from?
  • If you had additional resources, which opportunities or areas would you invest them in?
  • In order to achieve your aspirations, is there anything you need to stop doing or deemphasize?
  • Who or what could be a disruptor in your business?
  • As you think about the future of your business, what are you most excited about? What are you most concerned about?

Remember, one of the important ways you add value in a first meeting is by being thought-provoking and helping your prospect think differently about their issues. Good questions are a great way to do that.

In the next article, I'll discuss questions you can use to create a peer relationship with a prospective client and identify if they are truly ready to buy.

Andrew Sobel helps companies and individuals build their clients for life. He is the co-author, with Jerry Panas, of the newly published Power Relationships: 26 Irrefutable Laws for Building Extraordinary Relationships. He has written eight acclaimed books on business relationships, including the international bestsellers Power Questions and Clients for Life, which have been translated into 16 languages. Andrew can be reached at

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