Sales Interrogation, or Sales Interview?

Sales Interrogation, or Sales Interview?

If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to have been taken in for questioning by the smartly dressed gentlemen and ladies of the FBI, you will likely have been exposed to a variety of sophisticated questioning strategies.

NOTE: I have never been exposed to these strategies firsthand, of course, since I was nowhere near the docks at midnight on Thursday; I have never met Jimmy the Gent; and I have a watertight alibi anyway—I was giving out soup to the poor and needy of St. Cuthbert’s. Just ask anyone.

The FBI distinguish between two different types of situations requiring two different questioning strategies: the interview and the interrogation. The FBI calls the interview, “a conversation with purpose.” On the other hand, an interrogation is defined as “eliciting a confession against self-interest.” Many salespeople approach a sales interview like they would an interrogation—and this is their first mistake. And then and they unfortunately let the prospect interrogate them – and this is their second mistake.

Prospects tend to feel like the sales meeting is designed to elicit some sort of confession against their own self-interest—therefore, they are guarded, suspicious, and dubious. This is not the kind of attitude that’s going to help your cause. Decide, therefore, ahead of time, whether you are going to interview your prospects, or interrogate them.

Any successful FBI agent will tell you that the truth is always hidden in small packages. The interrogation builds a picture of the truth just a jigsaw—little bits all fitting into one another to reveal the complete situation. The suspect (prospect) rarely blurts out all of the truth in one, long, all-revealing, soul-cleansing confession mere seconds before fading to the commercial break. This may happen on TV, but TV isn’t real life.

It’s up to the interviewer (salesperson), therefore, to start by putting the other person at ease, to build rapport. Tonality, as they train it at FBI headquarters, is the single most important method for achieving this. Anything that sounds in the least bit “interrogate-y” or accusatory is 100% bound to fail.

Prepare a set of questions in advance of the (sales) interview—not just in your head. Actually write them down. I don’t care how long you’ve been selling or how many similar meetings you have been to, do it. Why? According to the FBI, this is absolutely key to helping you “actively observe” every single word, nuance, syllable, sigh, and twitch when the other party is responding.

Get the pace right, too. For most people, that means to slow down. Too many salespeople ask too many questions too quickly. Stop. Ask. Look. Listen.

The FBI trains agents to be as straightforward and matter of fact as possible in the interview situation (transparent and with some—but not a lot of—warmth and empathy).

Put the subject at ease. Ask a few questions about family, hobbies, the weather, and the price of fish—but keep it short. Get the tonality in your voice right. Gentle. Nurturing. Keep rapport alive.

Stay calm, and don’t ever get emotionally attached to the case or its outcome. Remain dispassionate. Keep checking “facts.” Ask the same question in a few different ways over time. Assume nothing. Don’t appear too keen to solve the case or accuse the subjects or their acquaintances.

Tell third-party stories. Ask the subject to help you understand the story and the circumstances surrounding the events.

Ask a question, then allow suspects to completely finish answering. Never interrupt them. Resist finishing off their sentences, and always stay on subject. Acknowledge (don’t dismiss) concerns. Don’t belittle what an interviewee says, and don’t ever assume anything.

Have a look at these two lists. They should help you properly understand the main difference in philosophy and delivery between interrogation and interview questions. Whenever talking to prospects and clients, be sure that your ears are always on high-alert to spot which types of questions you’re asking. Make sure that you get the tone of voice right, too: Nurturing Parent.

Businesswoman and clients having a discussion
Businesswoman and clients having a discussion about solutions and their needs.

Close the interview by asking a few catch-all questions—these are often the most critical questions of all. Write all of these questions down. Learn them. Use them.

  • “What else should I know about?”
  • “What else should I be aware of?”
  • “I feel that I’ve forgotten to ask something; have I?”
  • “Is there anything else you want to tell me?

If you want to fully understand the prospect and you want the prospect to fully understand you, then learn to ask gentle but probing questions that encourage the prospect to share information and remove any ambiguity (or assumptions that you might have) and get to the heart of the real truth. That’s where the truth lies, and that’s what we’re after. Interview, don’t interrogate.