"The Navigator" News Blog

Small Thinking Can Get You into Big Trouble

Would you like to know what makes up the worst sales questions?  Read this.

As you know, I do a significant amount of recruiting for sales positions, not only locally in Kansas City, but nationwide. I love it because it keeps me in touch with what’s going on with salespeople; you can’t interview over a hundred sales reps a year and not be in touch! Plus, to be frank, a lot of times it inspires new articles. Today’s article is one such example.

I was interviewing a gentleman for a sales position on the second round. My second round interviews tend to be a behaviorally focused interview. This is where I ask a series of open ended questions asking the candidate to describe situations they have encountered in the past, and how they handled them; the idea is that past performance is a predictor of future performance. In this case, however, the technique itself was a huge window into the candidate’s head. What happened was very interesting, and revealed a lot about fear and its impact on selling.

When I started to ask some pointed questions (the first one was “Tell me about a time when you disagreed with your boss, and how you resolved the issue.” The guy hesitated for at least 20-30 seconds, and then seemed to deflate and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t think of one. I can’t answer that question.” No big deal – in a lot of behavioral interviews, the candidate will not answer one or two questions. Except that in this case, it happened several times. The ultimate result was that the candidate tanked the interview, and not in a small way. I should point out that this was a salesman with a 30-year career to draw upon.

Looking behind the curtain, what happened? Given the long hesitation, I think he was assuming that the questions were pass/fail, and he was valiantly searching for the “right” answer. When he couldn’t come up with one, he was so paralyzed by fear of giving the “wrong” answer that he chose to take the Fifth Amendment. It’s a shame, but it’s indicative of some big fears that can hamper a sales career (and probably suggested a reason that he’s job hunting at this stage in his career).

What the guy was guilty of is what I call “small thinking,” or the desire and tendency to place limits on the sales conversation so that it doesn’t go somewhere that’s “bad” for the salesperson. Essentially, he’s so afraid of the answers he might receive in the sales conversation (or in this case, give within the interview) that he fails to ask questions (or give answers) that are important to the dialogue.

The classic example of this is something that many of us probably heard in early sales training sessions: “Don’t ask a question that you don’t already know the answer to,” or the Lawyer’s rule of sales questioning.    For instance, this philosophy posits that you should never ask what the customer likesabout their current provider because this allows them to ‘reinforce positives’ and remember that they do like their current vendor. This is “small thinking” because you are trying to restrict the ‘ground’ of the sales conversation.

Does anyone see a problem here? Me, too. They’re going to remember what they like, whether you ask it or not. And what is the #1 thing that could cost you the deal? That’s correct – it’s what they like about their current vendor. So in that case, aren’t you better off to know what could cost you the deal rather than not know it? Don’t be a victim of small thinking, and the fear-based behaviors that surround it.

Sometimes, though, small thinking isn’t a product of fear; it’s a product of laziness or not knowing better. I was talking with one of my clients recently who was coaching a route salesperson in attempting to sell a particular product. The salesperson would initiate the conversation by asking, “Do you use X product?” (This is a basic closed-ended question.) The resulting conversation consisted of “yup” or “nope.” After a couple of these calls, my client coached the salesperson to instead ask an open ended question along the lines of, “What has been your experience with X product?” Suddenly, good conversations happened and opportunities opened.

The lesson here is, don’t be trapped into small thinking, and don’t be afraid to ask the questions that will reveal the things you want to know. I’ve heard a lot of people talk about “the wrong sales question,” or “bad sales questions,” over the years. I’ve come to the conclusion that the only truly bad sales question is the one you don’t ask.