How to Ask a Customer “Why?”

QuestioningYoung children are not afraid to ask “why?” and often do so (much to their parents’ annoyance) umpteen times a day. They only later learn from their parents, their teachers and their bosses that the question “why?” often makes people react defensively and can lead to unnecessary conflict. So how can we ask a potential customer "why" they do something without causing them offense and losing the sale?

Put your hand on your heart: how often do we answer the question “why” from our children with “because I say so, that’s why!” or just with “because!” We are not alone in doing this, so over time these responses to asking “why” have taught us not to be curious; that we shouldn’t stick our noses into other people’s affairs.

This conditioning to not be nosy means we are quickly caught in a dilemma when meeting a potential customer: without knowing why your customer does or allows certain things - in other words without sticking your nose into their business - you will never find out what their real needs are and so will not be able to tailor your sales presentation accordingly. This will make it much harder for you to close the sale and secure an order from them.

On the other hand if you ask “why” too directly there is the real danger that the customer will take offense and block questions about their reasons, or give you flimsy answers.

So how can you skilfully slip in the word “why” when questioning a customer?

Communication skills training experts say that when you ask “why?” your question must not contain any value judgement or criticism. Such criticism is often implied in your tone of voice and “critical” body language signals, such as raised eyebrows or hand gestures. Any hint of judgement or criticism from you will cause the customer to become defensive. Remember that your gestures do not always express what you actually want to say!

One way round asking “why” directly is to re-frame your question so it does not actually contain the word “why”. Try the following alternatives for “why”:

  • “You obviously have a good reason for saying that. Could you explain to me in more detail?”
  • “What are you thinking of, when you say...?”
  • “How do you find that…?”
  • “How have you come to this decision…?”
  • “If I know the reasons for your decision, then I can make concrete suggestions. Can you help me here?”

Another method is to directly ask the client for permission to ask your why-question: “So I can advise on the best solution for you may i ask why you want to do XYZ?”

Whichever of these sales communication skills techniques you use to find out your customers real reasons, practice will make you more aware and proficient at asking the “why” question without causing offense.