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When negative is good Featured

9:34am EDT July 22, 2002

In a recent column, I noticed you frequently ask questions in a negative manner. Is this intentional? This seems to fly in the face of what I learned from Dale Carnegie and other sales training.

Yes, it is definitely intentional. Although salespeople should spend most of their time asking open-ended questions (questions that cannot be answered with a yes or no) to gain a better understanding of their prospects, sometimes it's necessary to ask a yes or no question to redirect the conversation.

Trial lawyers are taught that, in court, they should never ask a question unless they know the answer. This helps them avoid being surprised in a way that could ruin their cases.

Salespeople don't have this luxury. However, to protect themselves and stay on track, they should abide by this rule: When it's necessary to ask a yes or no question that you don't know the answer to, ask it in a negative way.

For example, I help companies that are frustrated by a couple of common scenarios. Some spend a lot of time educating prospects about their products and services without getting their business in return, and others frequently have their proposals shopped to their competitors, forcing them to compete on the basis of price.

Although these problems are very common, if I were to directly ask prospects if they have these problems, they are very likely to mislead me and tell me no.

Asking the question in the affirmative makes it difficult for me to recover. Instead, I can cover myself by asking in a negative way, such as, "You probably don't have any of these problems, do you?" If the prospects say, "No, I don't," then I am covered.

I can follow up with a statement like, "I didn't think so," and move on to other frustrations they may have. If the answer is, "Yes, I do," I can stop and explore the issue with open-ended questions. Either way, I win.

From a psychological standpoint, people are more likely to answer truthfully when given a question that assumes the opposite of what is true. Nobody likes to be told what to do or what to think. An affirmative question from a salesperson often comes across as a suggestion or an assumption.

When people assume they know what we need or suggest what is best for us, we rebel. We deny it even when it's true. We feel like the child being told by his parents to do something that he would rather not do.

The yes or no question phrased in an affirmative way is perceived to be presumptuous, especially when coming from a salesperson. When a salesperson suggests that you may have a problem, you likely will hate to admit it, even when you know you have the problem.

But if he or she does the opposite and denies you have a problem, you likely will acknowledge that you do, in fact, have that concern.

Mothers learn this technique when their children are young. A mother who is having a difficult time getting her 5-year-old to eat learns that the odds of getting her child to eat are increased by saying, "You probably don't want any dessert, do you?"

This works better than asking a neutral question, such as, "Do you want any dessert?" or asking it in the affirmative of "I am sure you want dessert, don't you?"

Try it the next time you're seeking agreement from someone. Instead of asking in the affirmative if he or she agrees with a specific point, try stating it in the negative, such as, "You don't agree with this, do you?" You'll be surprised at the response.

Yet, even if that person doesn't agree, you're not in trouble, because you can simply follow up with "I didn't think so" before moving on to the next point.

When talking with a prospect, any time you have to ask a question that you don't already have the answer to, ask it in the negative. Larry Lewis is president of Total Development Inc., a resource for companies that want to increase sales at higher margins. Send your comments and questions via fax to (724) 933-9224 or visit www.totaldevelopment.com. Reach him by phone at (877) 933-9110.