Study Confirms How to Control the Client’s Perception of You


Let me begin by making the following statement: “The average salesperson practices what to say. The superior salesperson practices what to ask.”

When I first heard this statement I thought it was poignant and insightful. The conclusion being that the way to get on your client’s good side was more than being able to answer all their questions, but more so in your ability to ask insightful questions that gets to the heart of what they really need. The more you understand a client, by asking a lot of questions, the more likely you are to better position yourself to close the sale.

But is this true? Does it really work that way? Or is this simply some cliché handed down by generations of clever sales trainers and not based on some empirical study? Is the statement true? If so, how do we know?

Curiosity go the best of me so I decided to dig into this proclamation and after some time researching I found a study which may shed some light on the validity of the opening statement.

A study conducted in 1977 asked students to participate in a make-believe “Quiz Show” show where one student was randomly assigned to ask questions (the questioner) and while another was tasked to answer them. The ‘questioners’ job was to come up with tough questions to ask. The role of the contestant was obviously to answer those tough questions.

An observer was then assigned to watch the ‘quiz show’ and make observations about the ‘questioner’ and ‘contestant’. Specifically, the observer was to make a judgment about the intelligence of both the questioner and contestant. Take a moment and visualize how that might work and put yourself in the observer’s position of judging.

As you can probably guess, the observer saw the questioner as highly intelligent and the contestant as lacking intelligence (i.e., stupid). Why? What’s going on here?

Well, it’s easy to come up with tough questions but it’s that much tougher to answer them. For example, “How fast does a millipede move up a slippery surface inclined at a 45 degree angle?” “How many homeruns did Hank Aaron hit to left field on the road before he was 30 years old?” I just made these two questions up and even I don’t know the answers. But if I hadn’t told you that you might think I was a trivia titan. Coming up with tough questions is easy while answering them is whole other game.

So it should come to you as no surprise that the observer viewed the questioner as highly intelligent while on the other hand, the contestant, who unable to answer the questions, was seen as stupid. Here’s the fascinating part; even after the observer was told the questioner and contestant were chosen at random and assigned their specific roles, the observers still failed to take that inconsideration when passing judgment.

What does all this mean? People are viewed more intelligently when they’re asking questions as opposed to when they can’t answer them. This isn’t a revelation, but a confirmation as to why asking great questions is key. Which brings us back to the statement: “The average salesperson practices what to say. The superior salesperson practices what to ask.”

From a third party perspective, asking good questions that others have a hard time answering makes you look good. Asking good questions puts you in the drivers seat in a conversation but it also has the derivative effect of making you seem more intelligent; assuming you’re asking great questions of course.

You can’t control what the client is going to ask you, but you can control the flow of the conversation by asking key questions. The more insightful and penetrating the question, the more you’ll be perceived as intelligent by those observing the questioning process. In a meeting, client perception is just as valid as the perceived value of your product’s features and functionality.

As salespeople we’re always looking for a way to establish our credibility and develop a sense of trust from our clients. What better way to demonstrate your expertise than by asking tough questions?

The quiz show experiment simply confirms what many of us in sales already knew, asking good questions always makes you look good in front of your client or everyone else attending the meeting. Keep this in mind the next time you’re going to speak with a key client. Practice what to say, but more importantly, practice what to ask so that you can 1) control the flow and direction of the conversation and 2) establish yourself as an expert (i.e., intelligent agent) in the client’s eye.

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Victor Antonio is the founder of Sales Influence, a sales training company dedicated to the study of how people make buying and incorporating those behavioral tendencies into your company’s sales process to increase your close rate. Victor has a BSEE, MBA and over 20 years experience as a sales executive. For more information, go to www.VictorAntonio.com.

Ref: Ross, L., Amabile, T.M., & Steinmetz, J.L. (1977). Social roles, social control and biases in social-perception processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 4845-494.

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