Everything You Thought You Knew About Selling Is Wrong

Here’s an even simpler way to think about sales.

When it comes to reading books, I employ a simple rule: 60 pages.

I give the author in question 60 pages to convince me to keep reading.

 At that point, if I’m not liking it, I give myself permission to put the book down and never look back. 

And I have to tell you, it wasn’t looking good these last few days for Warren Berger and his book, A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.

Had you stopped me in Starbucks at page 19, I would have predicted he wasn’t going to make it.

Had you sidled up to my car at page 32, as I waited for my son Jon at the train station, I would have told you it didn’t look good.

Indeed, had you tapped me on the shoulder the other night at page 47, as I read a few pages in bed before going to sleep, I would have told you to get the hell out of my house. And then I would have said, “Not a keeper.”

And yet somehow, somewhere in the mid-fifties, things started to click, and Mr. Berger got over my admittedly subjective bar.


This is where insights are born

The book, if I may unfairly oversimplify a man’s 272 pages of writing and years of hard work, makes a simple point: There’s more to be learned in asking questions than there is in knowing answers.

Questions, according to the author, are where the best insights are born.

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, it’s questions that have become the basis of my entire approach to selling (and something I recommend for you as well).

You see back when I first became a solopreneur (2000) and although at that point I had many years of big company marketing experience, I really knew nothing about selling. 

Actually, it was even worse than that: The little I knew, was wrong.

Back then, I believed that selling was a technique-oriented skill, a thing you did to manipulate people into hiring you. Different situations required different techniques, and your job in selling – like learning street self defense – was to become well-versed in handling and countering every possible situation and weapon that your adversary might bring. Or something like that.

Today – and thanks in large part to another book – Selling with Integrity by Sharon Drew – I see things very differently.


Sales is about this, not that

It’s not about leading with answers (i.e., “Here’s what we do and why you should hire us”). Instead, it’s about focusing on helping the other person solve whatever problem he or she has.

And you can’t do that without asking lots and lots of questions.

Questions like…


  • Tell me about your business.

  • What’s not working?

How would things look/work if this problem were solved?

  • Why haven’t you already fixed/done this yourself?


All of these, and questions like them, help the other person focus and articulate what’s going on, while at the same time giving you the information you need to make suggestions.

Here’s an even simpler way to think about it: Stop looking at the other person as a prospect to be sold and just think of them as a friend. A friend who has a problem in the area in which you have a lot of experience and expertise.

In that situation, and in order to help them figure out what to do next, you wouldn’t be trying to close them. Instead, you’d ask a lot of questions – all with the goal of pointing them in the right direction.

Well, effective selling, I’ve learned, is the exact same thing: Help people solve their problems. If the solution is you, great. If it isn’t (and this is the hard part) tell them why and send them to a better place. (I don’t mean kill them; I mean someone or something that makes more sense for them.)


What about the ‘close’?

You’re probably thinking, “
Now hold on there just a minute, Mr.Look-What-I-Learned-In-A-Book-Professional-Services-Marketing-Guy, don’t you have to eventually close people so that at least some of them buy from you?”

Sure. But after you’ve used questions to understand the situation, offer options and clear away any confusion that the other person is experiencing, the closing part is both pleasant and easy.

At that point, either everything comes together and you’re well down the road towards getting hired or they thank you for your honest, helpful advice and go off on their merry way.

In the end, either you get a new client, or you get a new friend, both of which are very good for your business.


This article has been edited and condensed.

Michael Katz is Founder and Chief Penguin of Blue Penguin Development. He specializes in developing email newsletters for professional service firms. Sign up for his free newsletter, The Likeable Expert Gazette, here.

Since launching Blue Penguin in 2000, Michael Katz has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Business Week Online, Bloomberg TV, Forbes.com, The Boston Globe, and other national and local media. He is the author of three books, and has published over 350 issues of “The Likeable Expert Gazette,” a twice-monthly email newsletter with 6,500 passionate subscribers in over 40 countries around the world. Michael has an MBA from Boston University and a BA in Psychology from McGill University in Montreal. Connect with @MichaelJKatz on Twitter.


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