By Stephen Fowler, President, PERCS

How to plan ahead so you can ask the right questions of customers and principals.

Alice asked the Cat, “Which way ought I to go from here?” The Cheshire Cat responded that “…depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” Alice immediately understood questions were not always the right questions. Questions mark and illuminate the terrain we can’t yet see. They guide us along the turns and rocky inclines to the journey’s end. Asking questions exposes and reveals. However, the questions aren’t necessarily obvious; nor the answers quickly given or true.

Questioning is the prequel to selling. The right questions should discover the right answers. Questions uncover facts, beliefs, timing, and circumstances. Open-minded, curious, goal-directed, right questioners have interest, enthusiasm, respect and need a special sympathetic intelligence. Armed with the right answers, they map the trip and sequence the actions to achieve their goals by fulfilling those of their customers.

Whomever we deal with, we struggle finding the right questions. Generally, we can’t be lawyers who never ask a question we don’t know the answer to. Equally, we can’t be journalists asking the Five Ws: who, what, when, where and why. We are not writing news, preparing legal briefs, or preparing a comic skit for “Who’s on first?” We are using questions to frame a conversation, then translate into a story, with finally the result — the sale — and a beneficial relationship.

You choose:

  • Be sponge-like with never-ending questions, which solicit but don’t filter, or
  • Be the better miner for precious facts and insights.

Be prepared for the difficulty of “finding the truth.” In the movie A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson’s character Colonel Nathan Jessup shouted “You can’t handle the truth!” That’s a danger we must confront fearlessly and fiercely. Only in honest, candid exchanges will questions discover the answers we need. Thus first step: establish focus and engagement to achieve rapport and trust. We question cheerfully, curiously, carefully, consultatively and courageously. Hard for that approach to fail.

The right questions must be thoughtful, well prepared and appropriate. Right questioners relish the process; they embrace the set of interrelated questions — building on each other, circling back for confirmation and looking for further details or insights. The flow of the conversation demonstrates how questions express our interest and respect. We channel our rapport through them. We ground our relationship with them. How do we know it’s working? Easy, customers enjoy the open-minded process, adding details to expand without demand. They smile, nod, provide feedback — they proactively participate.

So we’ve started the journey: Ready? Established rapport? Understand your goals and your customers’ goals? Know where on the journey to goal-solving you’re on? Then let’s get specific.

A Right Question Checklist

  • Ask permission.
  • Start broad and then get specific.
  • Don’t interrogate.
  • Don’t rush and create anxiety.
  • Use a simple structure.
  • Use a logical sequence.
  • Don’t ask questions robotically.
  • Don’t include meaningless “greats” or “awesomes.”
  • Let people expand on their answers.
  • Use their appropriate language or jargon.
  • Build on previous responses.
  • Use their words: repeat them appropriately.
  • If a sensitive issue, explain its relevance.
  • Maintain consultative approach or attitude.
  • What do you do? What are you good at?
  • What are you working on currently?
  • What is your location in the organization?
  • Do you have a budget?
  • What do you do currently?
  • How do you judge the project’s success?
  • Who’s involved in the decision making process?

One Final Word

Are there differences between the right questions of customers and of principals? Not in the words — they remain the same. The pivot or the key now is tone and “feel.” You must uncover any “core” difference in assumptions or interests between you both. Now, with a principal involved in your customer relationships, you’ve entered a multi-layered story affecting your customers’ rapport. Agent-principal flow is crucial — be able to finish each other’s sentences not with one mind but with a common approach. Secure and confident the foundation is the same. Agent-principal right question process is more improvised, the elements are still equally prepared, nuanced and groomed. Now acting as the “agent” for another requires a strict, complete understanding of each’s roles to benefit your ultimate customer.


Stephen Fowler is president of Process Equipment Resources & Consulting Services, Inc. (PERCS), located in Bridgewater, New Jersey. PERCS provides sales, engineering and business consulting services to equipment manufacturers, rep agencies and their direct customers. Before PERCS, Fowler was an executive at a major process equipment manufacturer, and then owned a four state, multi-product rotating equipment agency in the Northeast. Fowler has actively participated in MANA chapters, the Chemical Engineers Sales Association (CESEA), and technical groups such as AICHE (chemical), ISPE (bio and pharmaceutical), and WEFTEC (water and wastewater), representing all phases of the process industry.

Asking the Right Questions?

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