Getting Permission to Probe

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:39 pm

"I really drilled him for information!"

"It was great, I sucked his brain dry!"

"I just listened the entire meeting!"

"I’m not going to pitch; I’m just going to go in there and ask him questions!"

On the one hand, these quotes sound like they’re coming from a sales professional who "gets it." From one who knows that selling isn’t all about show-up and throw-up. "You gotta listen more" is today’s sales mantra.

In fact, for years I’ve been saying that there are really only two types of salespeople: one with a "tell mode" gene and the other with a "seek mode" gene. Everyone knows, of course, that the seek mode gene is the superior sales DNA.

But there’s a problem with seek mode. Or more accurately, there’s a paradox within it.  The paradox is this: we are always in seek mode but we can never just start seeking information. 

Let me illustrate. Al goes into a customer call having just come from sales training where he learned the merits of listening more. And that’s just what he does. The meeting starts with the usual niceties, then it ever-so-smoothly morphs into Al asking his contact a starter question. From that point on Al listens…and listens…and listens! Al returns back to the office to report his success: "I just listened the entire meeting," he proudly tells his boss. I call this type of non-seek mode listening interaction random listening.

Julie, having emerged from the same training as Al, goes in to see a customer and, again after the usual niceties, proceeds to drill…and drill…and drill! Julie returns to the office to report her success: "I really drilled him for information!" she proudly tells her boss. I call this type of non-seek mode drill-down interaction an interrogation.

Here’s one more non-seek mode questioning example. Mark (also from the same training class as Julie and Al), goes to see a customer. Before Mark can even get into the warm-up niceties, the contact starts talking about some of the very things Mark had hoped to get into with this contact. Not wanting to break the rhythm, Mark goes with the flow. In order to keep the contact on his stream of consciousness, Mark continues to probe…and probe…and probe! He returns to the office declaring victory with, "It was great, I sucked his brain dry." I call this indiscriminate probing.

Now, let’s say that after each of these three interactions was concluded and the salesperson had left, the contact’s next door neighbor peered over the cubicle partition and asked, "What was that meeting about?" How do you think these three contacts would respond?

Al’s contact might say, simply, "I’m wondering the same thing."  Julie’s contact perhaps would sound off with, "I don’t know, but it tired me out." And Mark’s? Maybe something like, "I’m not sure, but I feel a little empty."

What do these three non-seek mode questioning interactions have in common? The salesperson didn’t get a "contract" for the interaction. 

The idea of drilling down with a contact is not new to selling. Even the neophyte sales professional understands its value. But we need permission to drill down.

That’s right. If we want to probe, listen, drill, learn, ask, we have to get the contact’s permission to do so. But how? Should we say, "May I have permission to drill down during this meeting?"

Hmm, probably not.

What we need is contracting language, which we define as, "the words we use with a contact to get permission to go in a certain direction and drill to a certain depth in an interaction." 

One example. An RFP comes over the transom to your company. After sizing it up you’ve concluded that there might be a big opportunity in it. Developing your company’s response to this RFP, however, will consume a lot of resources. Your best estimate is about ten man-days. This time investment will be worth it, of course, as long as you’re certain that the opportunity is real and your company has a reasonable chance of winning.

Before you start working on your response, you’ve decided to call the contact whose name is on the RFP’s cover letter. Your goal in this phone call (the company is airplane distance from yours, so you’ve deemed a phone meeting as the forum of choice for this interaction) is to drill down with this contact and ask probing questions to help you determine how real the opportunity is and what your chances of winning might be. If it’s not real or winnable you’re not going to respond, or you might want to provide some form of stripped down response as an alternative.

Here are two possible forms of your request for this phone meeting: "Thanks for sending the RFP in our direction. Could we schedule some phone time so I can ask you a few questions about it?" Or a second possibility is, "Thanks for sending the RFP in our direction. We’ve taken a first-look at it and it looks like it could be a good fit for us.  However, before we roll up our sleeves and commit resources to developing a response there are some things we need to understand a little better. Could we schedule some phone time so I can get a better handle on the big picture here?"

Which of these two requests do you think gets permission to go in a certain direction and drill to a certain depth? That is what contracting language is all about.

Jerry Stapleton is the founder of Stapleton Resources LLC, a Waukesha-based sales force effectiveness practice. He can be reached at (262) 524-8099 or on the Web at


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