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Professional Achievement Group, Inc. | Rockville, MD

Has this ever happened to you?

A seemingly “hot prospect” asks you a question that seems to signal interest in working with you. (For example: “Can you tell me about your quantity discounts?”) You’ve been taught to respond immediately to “buying signals,” and you’re sure you just got one. So you answer the question – at length and with sufficient thoroughness to resolve all past, present, or future ambiguity on the subject. Your prospect nods and smiles. Then, for some mysterious reason, your “hot prospect” disengages. The discussion, which had been going somewhere, suddenly isn’t. The chemistry that had seemed to be there vanishes. The momentum dissipates. When you offer to call again at a certain date and time, the prospect says he has to think about things and will be in touch. 

What happened? What did you do wrong? 

You answered the question instead of reversing.


To improve communications and avoid misinterpreting the intent of prospects’ questions or the meaning of their answers to your questions, David Sandler recommended that you ask for clarification instead of responding to the question as posed. For example, a prospect may ask, “Can you tell me about your quantity discounts?” when what he really wants to know is whether he can take advantage of a quantity discount and then arrange for a 30-day split shipment. And what he really wants is the full discount, but only wants half the shipment upon order and only pay for half, and then get shipment for the other half in 30 days and wait to pay for this half until then.

Or, a prospect who asks, “Have you ever worked for any of my competitors?” could be sizing up your experience in the industry … or fishing for inside information … or trying to make sure that you keep his information confidential. You have no way of knowing.

Or someone who asks, “How much do you know about my company?” That may be meant to determine whether you’ve done your homework before calling on him. Or the prospect may simply be eager to tell you about his company - how he took it over when his father retired and how he doubled its revenue in three years.

There are countless “smoke-screen” questions. The prospect’s intention – what he really wants to know – is obscure. It’s a mistake to answer this kind of question without first clarifying the other person’s intention. Wouldn’t it be nice to know the reasons behind these kinds of questions before you answer them? But you shouldn’t respond by demanding, “What’s your intention in asking that?” To simply ask prospects for the motive behind their questions can be a bit too abrupt. To avoid being perceived as confrontational, you must soften your question by preceding it with an appropriately named softening statement.

Here’s an example:

Prospect: "Have you done work for any of my competitors?" 

Salesperson: "That sounds important to you, and others have asked that. (Followed by a clarifying question.) But, why do you ask?" 

The softening statement, “That sounds important to you, and others have asked,” allows you to ease into the clarification question. 

Other softening statements include:

  • I’m glad you asked that...
  • That’s a good question...
  • Good point...
  • I appreciate that question...
  • I haven’t been asked that question for quite a while...

David Sandler aptly called this strategy of responding to prospects’ smoke-screen questions (or any question for which the meaning or intent is unclear) with your own questions “reversing” - because doing so reverses the flow of information - from prospects to you, rather than from you to the prospects. 

In almost all cases, when you apply a reversing strategy, prospects will reword or expand their question to reveal the motive behind it. It may take more than one reversing question, however, to fully expose the real question. 

Some effective reversing questions include: 

  • Why do you ask?
  • Why is that important? (And that’s important because…?)
  • What are you hoping I’ll tell you?
  • Why did you bring that up just now?
  • Can you help me understand what are you really asking?


The next time you hear a question from a prospect whose motive is unclear to you, don’t just answer the question. Try using a softening statement. Then ask a reversing question – and wait for the answer. You’ll have better conversations, get better information about your prospect’s real situation, secure more next steps… and, last but not least, improve your closing numbers.

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Questions? Contact Ken Smith at 301-590-8700, or Contact Us Online. You can go here to learn about our upcoming live webinars that introduce proven strategies for selling in today's business climate. 

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