When talking with a potential customer, your primary goal is to gather information. You want to understand that customer's needs, discover whether that customer has a budget for what you're selling, find out what that customer has tried in the past, and so forth.

However, asking questions early in a conversation can be awkward. For example, suppose your customer states up front that he or she is already working with a competitor. Here's how that might play out:

  • You: This is Fred from ABC widgets.
  • Customer: We buy our widgets from XYZ.
  • You: In an ideal world, what else would XYZ be doing for you?
  • Customer: Beats me. Goodbye. (Click)

Note that the question in this example is strong. Without directly criticizing the competitor, it raises the possibility that another vendor (meaning you) might do more, and provides an opening for the customer to express unfulfilled needs.

However, even though the question is strong, its abruptness tends to kill the conversation. Its sudden appearance makes you sound like a detective trying to solve a crime rather than a colleague trying to solve a problem.

Observe, though, how the identical conversation feels different when you add the four magic words "just out of curiosity":

  • You: This is Fred from ABC widgets.
  • Customer: We buy our widgets from XYZ.
  • You: Just out of curiosity... (pause)  ...in an ideal world, what else would XYZ be doing for you?
  • Customer: Well, let me think about that...

There are two reasons why the addition of "just out of curiosity" makes it more likely that the customer will provide a useful answer to your question.

First, since "just out of curiosity" always precedes a question, it gives the customer advance warning that you're about to ask one, thereby making the question seem less abrupt and more natural.

Second, "just out of curiosity" expresses that you're emotionally interested in what the customer has to say, and therefore (by extension) emotionally interested in the customer as a person and not just as source of information.

Because of this, every salesperson should have "just out of curiosity" in their proverbial bag of tricks.

A word of warning: The four magic words only work when you are genuinely curious about the customer. If secretly don't really care, a "just out of curiosity" falls flat and makes you seem insincere.

Published on: Dec 18, 2014
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