Direct Marketing Article
Ask, Don't Tell: Nine Ways Power Questions
Help Us Build Better Business Relationships
By Andrew Sobel
Personal connection, likeability, and trustworthiness are back. They are the
new litmus test for doing business. We can create these qualities not by
knowing the right answers, but by knowing the right questions.
Just a few years ago, globalization was in full swing, and the world seemed
to be bursting with an infinite supply of business. All this bounty lulled
us into taking our customers for granted-until the economy tanked and
shattered the illusion of endless prosperity. Suddenly, the old-fashioned
"trusted relationship" started to look good again.
In this post-Madoff era of unpredictability and suspicion, people are
looking for deeper, more intimate, and more engaged relationships-the kind
that reduce risk.
This is true of customers but also vendors, employees, and other business
partners. The days of getting in, making money, and moving on to the next
guy are over. When times are tough and the future is uncertain, people want
to put down roots and partner with people they truly like and trust.
Bottom line: In today's markets, the most valuable commodity is the ability
to connect with others and rapidly build trust. And that begins by asking
the right questions.
Asking questions and letting people come up with their own answers is far
more effective than spouting facts or trying to talk someone into something.
Telling creates resistance. Asking creates relationships.
Here are nine ways questions can transform professional and personal
• Questions turn one-dimensional, arms-length business relationships into
personal relationships that endure for years. When a relationship is all
business and there is no real personal connection, it lacks heart and soul.
And therefore you are a commodity-a kind of fungible expert-for-hire. A
client-or your boss-can trade you out for a new model with no remorse or
emotion. But when you've connected personally, the situation is transformed
because clients stick with people they like. Bosses hold on to team members
they feel passionately about. Your expertise and competence get you in the
door, but it's the personal connection that then builds deep loyalty.
There was a senior partner in a top consulting firm who had to meet with the
CEO of a major client. Other consultants were nipping at their heels to get
more business from this company. This powerful, confident CEO, who was in
his 60s and near retirement, had seen hundreds of consulting reports. At the
end of a routine briefing, the senior partner paused and asked the CEO,
"Before we break up, can I ask you a question?" The CEO nodded. The partner
said, "You've had an extraordinary career. You have accomplished so much,
starting at the very first rung of the ladder, on the manufacturing floor.
As you look ahead-is there something else you'd like to accomplish? Is there
a dream you've yet to fulfill?"
The CEO was nearly stunned. He thought for a moment and replied, "No one has
ever asked me that question. No one." And then he began talking about a
deeply held dream he had for his retirement. That question was the turning
point in building a long-term, deeply personal relationship with an
influential business leader.
• They make the conversation about the other person-not about them. Most of
us don't care what other people think-we want to know first if they care
about us. The need to be heard is one of the most powerful motivating forces
in human nature. That's why one of my power questions is, What do you think?
Another is, Can you tell me more?
There's an anecdote I love about a woman who has dinner, in the same month,
with two great rival British statesmen of the 19th century, Gladstone and
Disraeli. When asked to compare the two men she says, ‘After my dinner with
Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in the world.' And then
she adds, ‘After my dinner with Mr. Disraeli, I felt as though I were the
cleverest woman in all of England!'
When you make the conversation all about you, others may think you are
clever. But you will not build their trust. You will not learn about them.
You will squander the opportunity to build the foundations for a rich,
• They cut through the "blah, blah, blah" and create more authentic
conversations. No doubt you can relate to this scenario. A person says, "I
want to bounce something off you." Then, he proceeds to spend ten minutes
telling you every detail of a very convoluted situation he is enmeshed in.
You do yourself and the other person a favor by getting him to focus on the
true kernel of his issue. Simply ask: What is your question?
This is a tough-love question. People will resist it-often strenuously. But
you must ask it. It forces them to take the first step toward clarifying
what the issue is and what advice they really need from you. You'll reduce
the amount of posturing people do and will move faster toward an authentic
• They help people clarify their thinking and "get out of the cave." The
ancient Greek philosopher Socrates said that we perceive reality as if we
are chained inside a dark cave. In that cave, we see only the blurred
shadows of life outside the cave as they are projected on a dark wall at the
back. Our understanding of reality is filtered and distorted.
By asking a series of questions, Socrates would engage his students' minds
in the learning process. In this way he uncovered assumptions and slowly but
surely got to the heart of the issue. The "Socratic Method" is still used at
Harvard Business School-and it can enable you to help others see the true
reality instead of shadowy representations of it.
Instead of saying, "We need to improve our customer service!" I suggest
asking: "How would you assess our customer service levels today?" Or, "How
is our service impacting our customer retention?" If someone at work says,
"We need more innovation," ask, "Can you describe what innovation means to
you? How would we know if we had more of it?" Or if there is a call for more
teamwork, ask, "What do you mean when you say ‘teamwork'?"
• They help you zero in on what matters most to the other person. The next
time you're talking to someone and realize you've "lost" her-she's
fidgeting, she's stopped asking questions, maybe she's sneaking glances at
the clock-ask this question: What is the most important thing we should be
discussing today? You will instantly connect with what really matters to
her-and the conversation that ensues will help her see you as relevant and
Even if your agenda doesn't get met, hers will. And then she will want to
enthusiastically reciprocate. In business it's critical to be seen as
advancing the other person's agenda of essential priorities and goals. When
time is spent together on issues that are truly important to both parties,
the relationship deepens and grows.
• They help others tap into their essential passion for their work. One of
the highest-impact power questions you can ask is, Why do you do what you
do? It grabs people by the heart and motivates them. When they seriously
consider and answer this question, the room will light up with passion. Dull
meetings will transform into sessions that pop with energy and generate
ideas that vault over bureaucratic hurdles and create real impact.
We do things for many reasons. But when you put ‘should' in front of those
reasons, you can be certain all the pleasure and excitement will soon be
drained away. No one gets excited about should. In contrast, when you unveil
the true why of someone's work and actions-when you get them to start
sentences with ‘I love to' or ‘I get excited when'-you will find passion,
energy, and motivation.
• They inspire people to work at a higher level. The late Steve Jobs was
notorious for pushing employees. He asked people constantly, Is this the
best you can do? It's a question that infused Apple's corporate culture from
the beginning. It's one that helped revolutionize the desktop computing,
music, and cellular phone industries. And it's one that you can use
too-sparingly and carefully-when you need someone to stretch their limits
and do their very best work.
Often, we settle for mediocrity when we need to do our best. Mediocrity is
the enemy of greatness. Asking, Is this the best you can do? helps others
achieve things they did not believe possible.
• They can save you from making a fool of yourself. Before responding to a
request or answering someone's question to you, it's often wise to get more
information about what the other person really wants. When a potential
employer says, "Tell me about yourself," you can bore them to tears by
rambling on and on about your life-or you could respond by asking, "What
would you like to know about me?" When a prospect asks, "Can you tell me
about your firm?" the same dynamic applies. Most people go on and on about
their company, but the client is usually interested in one particular aspect
of your business, not how many offices you have in Europe. Ever seen someone
answer the wrong question? It's painful to watch. Asking a clarifying
question can save you huge embarrassment.
A potential client asked me for the names of three references to call.
Instead of running around and drumming up the names, I pushed back, and
asked, ‘What particular information are you seeking? Any references I give
you are only going to rave about me!' It turned out the prospect had no
interest in actual references. And in fact, had she called my past clients
under that pretense, it could have been potentially embarrassing to me for
them to make such a big deal about a small speaking engagement. What she
really wanted to understand was how other clients of mine had tackled the
organizational resistance she was expecting. This question-and the
subsequent conversation-turned a small lead for a keynote speech into a
major, year-long project.
• They can salvage a disastrous conversation. My coauthor on Power
Questions, Jerry Panas, recalls the time he asked a man named Allan for a
million-dollar donation to his alma mater's College of Engineering. Though
he knew better, the author failed to gain rapport and explore Allan's true
motivations before jumping in with the big request. When Allan rebuked him
for his presumptuousness, Panas realized he had made a serious error. He
apologized, left the room, and twenty seconds later knocked on the door and
asked the power question, Do you mind if we start over?
Start over they did, and Panas ultimately discovered that Allan might indeed
be interested in making a gift-but to the University's theater program, not
its engineering program!
Things like this happen all the time in business-and at home. Interactions
get off on the wrong foot, and someone gets angry or offended or just shuts
down. But people are forgiving. They want to have a great conversation with
you. Asking, Do you mind if we start over? will disarm the other person and
make him smile. That smile will ease the way to a new beginning.
One of the greatest benefits of becoming a master questioner is that it
takes a lot of pressure off us. It's a huge relief to know that you don't
have to be quick, clever, or witty-that you don't have to have all the
All business interactions are human interactions. And part of being human is
acknowledging that you don't know everything about everything-and that you
certainly don't know everything about the other person and her needs.
Questions help you understand these things more deeply.
The right questions unleash a cascade of innermost feelings and vibrant
conversations. They help you bypass what's irrelevant and get straight to
what's truly meaningful. They make people like you, trust you, and want to
work with you-and once you've achieved that, the battle is already won.
About the Author:
Andrew Sobel is the most widely published author in the world on client
loyalty and the capabilities required to build trusted business
relationships. His first book, the bestselling Clients for Life, defined an
entire genre of business literature about client loyalty. His other books
include Making Rain and the award-winning All for One: 10 Strategies for
Building Trusted Client Partnerships. He can be reached at