The ONE Question to Ask to Solve Bigger Problems

About 10 years ago, I uncovered a Super Ninja sales move that worked to earn more clients, and bigger, more profitable business than any other question I had ever asked customers.

Last week, I was talking about this to a group of Operations Directors and set up my favorite story to demonstrate this method. It starts with me roaming through the aisles at Home Depot, when a big man in an orange apron approaches and asks, “Can I help you find something, Ma’am?”

His name tag said “Earle” and his face was very friendly so I told Earle, “I’m looking for some rope.”

At this point, I always ask the audience, “What do you think was Earle’s next question to me?” and 9 out of 10 audience members reply with the same answer,

“What kind of rope do you need?”

Which, is not exactly the wrong answer but it’s NOT what Earle asked me. Because, presumably, if I’d known what kind of rope I needed, I would have asked for that kind of rope. I could have asked for Sisal Rope or Diamond Braided Poly or Wire Rope, but I didn’t know what kind of rope I was looking for to use in my project. I was going to try to figure that out when I got there.

The super ninja question that Earle asked me was,

“What are you going to do with the rope?”

To which I replied, “Build a rope swing.”

That answer gave Earle a start to a few more questions which not only got me to the right rope, but helped me think through the construction and execution of the entire rope swing, all the parts and mechanics needed. Earle chauffeured me through the rest of the store to get everything else I needed and when I was finished, I went home and successfully built TWO rope swings on the big oak trees in front of my house.

Thanks to Earle. He solved my bigger problem. I didn’t need just rope; I needed a plan and other resources to accomplish the bigger goal. Rope was simply my starting point.

Now, when I have a project and a starting point, guess where I go? And guess who I look for every time I go to Home Depot? Earle. Earle is my guy now. My go to expert.

Earle doesn’t assume I don’t know what I’m looking for. He does ask about the big picture, to make sure he can be of most value to his customers.

With some tweaks, this works whether you’re selling a product or a service – especially if your business tends to be commoditized or traditionally driven by price.

Working for a large company selling commercial print – there wasn’t much more of a commodity product than black and white print or business cards. So when a procurement agent would hand me a binder of documents and ask me for a quote, I would push back with additional questions centering around “What are you going to do with it,” such as “How often will the content change?” and “Are you going to ship these to distribute?” or “Do you need to be able to print individually?”

Often, these questions helped me move beyond the procurement department, to get to the person who owned the end results, the problem, the pain or even the budget. We would work on solutions that solved the bigger problems for them, leading to additional projects, more profitable business and stronger loyalty. I became a part of their team. Binders or print were simple a bi-product of our relationship and that made me extremely hard to replace.

And even in our consulting firm, when a client asks us about a specific program, we always back up to ask more questions about the bigger problem. Many times, a client wants to hire a Sales Person because they believe that is the answer to their problems. That is their starting point, what they know. However, when we back up and start asking about what they’re trying to achieve and what they have in place, we often start with aligning and mobilizing their existing resources around their objectives to help them operate more efficiently and focus the entire organization on selling before we build a Sales Program that would support Sales Talent.

Because we’re the experts.

We’re the Earle that asks the questions that solve the bigger problems.

Next time someone comes to you and asks you for something, be it a sharpie, a website, a strategy or a sign, can it be a piece of a bigger problem that you can solve for them?

Ask better questions, get better answers, be a bigger value.

Until next time, keep kickin’ butt!


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Straightforward, practical and perhaps slightly cheeky, Shawn Karol Sandy's innate gift is helping people find new ways to solve old problems, unique ways to approach new problems and helping businesses re-invent themselves and their sales strategies. With Bold and Brave thought leadership and Clear Action Plans, her impact on business is Measurable and Meaningful and will lead your sales revolution to growth and revenue goals.

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