Bury the Clichés

August 9th, 2012 | Coaching
Bury the Clichés
Excerpted with the permission of the authors from Chapter 13 of Power Questions:

“I threw him out of my office.”


I’m with Fred, the chief executive of the North American operations of a multinational corporation. Fred was formerly the chief information officer (CIO) of one of the world’s largest banks. He’s had hundreds of salespeople call on him over the years.

“You name the company,” he tells me, “Goldman Sachs, IBM, Accenture, McKinsey, EDS, and then every bucket shop between here and the West coast as well. They’ve all tried to sell me something.”

Fred is smart and tough, and doesn’t tolerate fools. But I have a hard time picturing him throwing someone out of his office.

“You literally kicked him out? You’re kidding?”

“I’m not kidding,” says Fred. “He asked the question.”

“Which one?”

“What keeps you up at night?”

He continues, shaking his head: “You see, it’s a terrible question. Overused. Clichéd. Stale. And worst of all, lazy. I hate lazy salespeople. At a certain point it seemed that every salesperson, banker, and consultant was asking that question. They were like lemmings. They’d come and call on me and invariably ask, ‘What keeps you up at night?’”

“They thought that by posing that question I would—as if by magic—immediately volunteer to tell them all about my toughest issues. Then, they could say, ‘Ah, we have a solution to fix that.’ I started escorting them from my office.”

“And it doesn’t work that way with you?” I sheepishly ask.

“No, it doesn’t. Nor with anyone else. Look, let’s get some more coffee and I’ll explain why. I’ll tell you what the really smart ones do that is effective.”

Fred’s executive assistant brings us two more fresh cups. We move from his desk to a small sitting area with a couch, a coffee table, and an easy chair. We settle in.
I can’t believe my good fortune. I’m like a fourteen year-old again, listening to my cigar-smoking, Cognac-sipping uncle Morton discuss his philosophy of good living. But now, I’m going to school with the world’s best instructor on how to have a great first meeting with an executive prospect.

Sir Isaac Newton, referring to his extraordinary scientific breakthroughs, said, “I stood on the shoulders of giants.” I feel like Fred is lifting me onto his back, and I’m definitely going along for the ride. Big time.

“Here’s why,” Fred explains, “‘What keeps you up at night?’ is a terrible question. First, it’s a shot in the dark. It doesn’t demonstrate to the other person that you’ve done your homework, researched the organization, and thought about the issues they face. It’s a question that requires zero preparation. That’s why it’s evidence of laziness.”
I’m scribbling furiously.

“Second, if someone doesn’t already know you pretty well, they are probably not going to tell you what is really on their mind. Teasing that out requires that you first build some trust and credibility. Come on! Think about it. Am I going to immediately share my innermost cares and concerns with some salesperson I’ve never met before? Are you kidding?

“Third—and this is especially true if you’re talking to a CEO or a really senior executive—this is a ‘problem question.’ At my level, I’m focused on growth and innovation, not operational problems. I have operating executives who are paid to worry about those problems. Ultimately, executives like me are paid for growth and innovation. ‘What keeps you up at night?’ doesn’t actually help you get at the most fruitful issues.”

“So, what do the smart ones ask?”

“You have to approach a meeting with me as a balancing act. You must prepare. Read my annual report. Search the web. Read my speeches. Watch the videos of me being interviewed. Review analysts’ reports. Learn about my priorities and strategies before you walk in the door.

“But then—and this is really important—when you sit down in front of my desk, don’t presume to know what my real issues are. Be confident, but be humble. Probe and possibly suggest, but don’t walk in here and tell me what I’m concerned about.”

“The great salespeople ask indirect questions that show they know their stuff. They say things like, ‘Fred, how are you reacting to the merger of two of your biggest competitors? Or, ‘I was intrigued by what you said at the investors conference in New York last month. How is your push into Asian markets going to impact your financial controls and risk management requirements?’

“The other day, someone had carefully read our proxy statement, and she asked me some very intelligent questions about our executive compensation plan. She wanted to know why we had made certain choices. It was an engaging discussion. She kept gently probing, asking questions. She learned a lot about what is on my mind and about my talent management and retention strategies. We were satisfied with our existing provider, and had no intention of giving her any business. But she was so artful—I believe her firm will get a project from us.

“In other words, ask me questions that implicitly show you are knowledgeable and experienced. Talk about your view of my competition, and how you think the industry is evolving. Get me involved in that dialogue. Then, I’ll start to open up. Once that happens, you can be a little more direct.

“You might even say, ‘Given all that we’ve discussed—x, y, and z—where do you wish you were making faster progress? Which of these issues are proving to be the toughest nut to crack?”

We wrap up, and I’m beaming. In one hour I’ve just had a semester’s course in advanced salesmanship.

Other Questions that are Clichés: 

“What has surprised you?”

This is a question people love to ask someone who has taken on a new job or been through a significant new experience. But there’s no good answer that is honest and positive at the same time. If you’re surprised about something, it implies you were naïve and didn’t know what you were getting yourself into! If you say nothing has surprised you, then you risk coming across as complacent or insensitive. Barry Glassner, the President of Lewis and Clark College, put it this way in the Wall Street Journal:

“If I had a thousand dollars for every time I’ve been asked that question—What has surprised you?—in the seven months I’ve been in my new position as a college president, I could buy a well-equipped Lexus. It’s the ultimate ‘gotcha’ question…every answer is perilous.”

Here are the questions I prefer to ask instead: “What have you been focusing on most during your first six months on the job?” or “Have you developed a longer-term agenda yet for your role?”

“What question haven’t I asked?”

A well-known marketing expert calls this his “killer” question for wrapping up a sales call. This question-about-a-question is a patently obvious attempt to make your prospective customer a coach to you in your sales process rather than an adversary. It’s a somewhat manipulative, cutesy attempt to say, “We’re really on the same side of the table here…give me some advice to be a more effective salesperson!” Like “What keeps you up at night,” it’s also overused.

There are many more like this. They fall into the same category as the “get them saying ‘yes’ three times before you ask” approach that you should shun.

Here are the questions I prefer to ask instead: “Are there any issues we haven’t discussed that you think are relevant to this particular challenge?” or, “Is there anyone else you think I should I talk to in order to get additional perspective on this issue?”

Great Excerpt, so:

  • What questions are you going to quit using?
  • What other questions do think need to be buried?

Would you like to know more about Power Questions?  Here is a really well done video overview Power Questions by Andrew Sobel:


Which of your friends would thank you for forwarding this post to them?

Jerold Panas & Andrew Sobel


Authors of Power Questions: Jerold Panas & Andrew Sobel – Jerold Panas (1928-2018) was the world’s leading consultant in philanthropy and the CEO of Jerold Panas, Linzy & Partners, the largest consulting firm in the world for advising nonprofit organizations on fundraising. Andrew Sobel is the leading authority on building long-term client and other professional relationships. He can be reached at Andrew Sobel.


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3 thoughts on “Bury the Clichés

  1. As a sales person I always fear becoming a nuisance to my prospective client. Understanding their organization and steering away from cliché questions will be sound advice for years to come.

  2. Thanks Matt! What are your favorite questions to use in sales?

  3. Mark Smith says:

    Great questions/approach to the sales process Bob. Thanks for capturing it here. This sentiment echoes what Jill Konrath wrote in her excellent book “Selling to Big Companies”. I’ve already forwarded the post to a couple of friends.

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