Powerful Questions

4 min readFeb 28, 2024
Ask two or three well-thought-out, prepared questions, and customers will tell you everything you need to know to make the sale.

In this story: How best-in-class salespeople prepare their questions to uncover the customers’ issues.

Written by Maria Edelson, Founder & CEO of Edelson

Here’s another true story. My business partner Bruce Peters and I were consulting for a huge consumer electronics company, and we were invited to the launch of one of their most sought-after devices. There were more than 500 people at this glitzy and glamorous event in Shanghai.

When Bruce went over to his table, he found himself seated next to the Global VP of Marketing for Mobile Phones, who was responsible for bringing that red-hot product to market. Bruce was extremely interested in making a good impression on this VP, and fast. So he turned and asked, “What challenges do you foresee over the next 12 months in the mobile phone industry?”

Well, that was it. The Global VP talked exclusively to Bruce the rest of the night, to the dismay of everyone else at the table. It didn’t matter how badly the other people wanted to talk to him. Bruce had gotten him talking excitedly and passionately, and so he wanted to keep talking to Bruce. It was a golden first impression.

As salespeople, we love to talk. It’s in our DNA. But we often forget that our customers also love to talk. They just need to be prompted. And once you get a customer talking, they’re all yours — just like that VP was all Bruce’s. Ask two or three thoughtful questions, and customers will tell you everything you need to know to make your sale.

But most salespeople are too scared to ask questions that they don’t know the answer to. They usually do the opposite of what Bruce did: they do all the talking, while the customer says very little!

Ask yourself, as a sales manager:

  • Do your people ask ANY questions?
  • Do they prepare questions in advance?
  • Do they get the customer talking?
  • Do they use questions to learn important things that they can’t find out by themselves?
  • Do they know how to avoid making the customer feel defensive with their questions?

Most sales teams don’t do well on this scorecard. That’s why we teach questioning.

The art of questioning

It’s time for one of my favorite visuals: the powerful question pyramid. It takes a couple minutes to understand it, but it’s worth it.

The Powerful Question Pyramid

A question is more or less powerful based on the number of different possible answers it might receive. The least powerful type of question is a closed question — one in which the answer is Yes or No. Closed questions start with words like Have, Is, Can, Do, Will, and Are (e.g., Have you noticed any change in the number of delayed shipments? and Can I expect your signature by the end of the day?).

Closed questions are extremely useful. Remember, our closing question (Do I have your agreement to ________?) is a closed question!

However, closed questions alone won’t help you understand the customer’s business. They won’t get the customer talking about the things you need to know and can’t find out by yourself. They won’t help you discover the customer’s needs, pain, challenges, or problems.

For that, you need to be prepared with more open-ended questions, in the middle of the pyramid. For example:

  • Which categories of inventory are slowest to turn over?
  • What are some of the biggest challenges you’re facing this quarter or this year?
  • What are some of the barriers keeping you from achieving your goals?
  • How have you tried to reduce costs in the past?
  • Which categories of inventory are slowest to turn over?

At the top of the pyramid is the most powerful question of all: Why? It’s the most open-ended and can prompt the most detailed answers.

But we usually don’t want to ask customers questions that start with Why because they can make customers feel like you’re judging them. Think about it. Listen to how this question sounds in your head:

“Why did you buy from the competitor?”

That question puts people on the defensive. The best salespeople reframe their Why questions into What or How questions. For example, instead of asking Why did you buy from the competitor?, you could ask:

  • What is driving you to buy from the competitor?
  • What made you choose the competitor?
  • How did you come to decide on going with the competitor?

Those are three ways of re-framing the question in a way that doesn’t make people feel defensive.

I tell my students: Whenever you want to win favor with someone (like maybe a customer), remember Bruce. Get that person talking. All it takes is one powerful question.

So, are your people preparing questions to learn what they need to know? Are they willing to ask questions to which they don’t know the answer, but which will allow the customer to open up and talk? If the answer is yes, hooray!

If not, the good news is this could be a huge opportunity.

Feedback is a gift. Let us know what you think about this story in the comments below.

This is part 10 of Sales Bites, a 12-part series of stories from 35 years of sales experience with P&G and from training 13,000 sales executives globally. Follow or Subscribe below so you don’t miss the next story.

Up Next: Stakeholder mapping — are your salespeople going Deep and Wide?




Edelson helps the world’s top brands sell more and get results through our comprehensive and industry-customizable training programs.