The phone was ringing, and no one was picking up. 

"Bates Communications, how may I help you?"

"I was hoping to speak with the CEO or owner," replied a young woman. 

"Well, you've reached her.  Who is calling?"

"Oh, well this is Michelle from (a payroll service which shall remain unnamed).  I wonder if you can tell me how your payroll is processed."

"Well," I said, confused for a moment.  "Do you mean how do YOU process our payroll?" (Pause)  Because, we use .... you guys."

"Oh..... I'm sorry she said.  Your records are ... not shared with us... so, I... wouldn't know if you're our customer."

I wish I could tell you I was making this up.  I really do. 

First I was irritated.  Then I felt sorry for the young woman.  Later I thought I should write the CEO.  I mean we've been a customer for almost ten years.  

Then I was inspired.  To talk about how important it is to ask the right questions.    

In our sales presentation boot camp we have a module on asking great questions.  We practice in role-plays.  It's great to watch people develop this skill.  There are lots of great questions that can get a conversation going, take it deeper, uncover needs and potential opportunities. 

But there are a few you should not ask.  Other than "Are you a customer?" I'm thinking of the classicly overused, "What keeps you up at night?" (I know, you've been taught to ask it... but think about it.  A sophisticated client is going to expect you to have some idea about that).  A better question is, "Gee I imagine you're feeling some competitive pressure from xyz client because of their new whatchacallit invention.  How are you handling it?"  

You only get so many questions.  Make them count.  Otherwise they'll be counting the minutes until it's sort of polite to say, "Gee where did the time go?  I'm sorry I have to run to a meeting." 

Did I mention we've been a customer of this company for almost ten years

Not sure we're going to be celebrating that tenth anniversary.

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