Always Be Curious: The Power of Curiosity in Sales – by Douglas E. Rice

If you have worked in sales for even just a few months, you have probably become well-versed in the power of questions. Perhaps you’ve been trained in the old-school paradigm of close-ended questions: “I have openings at 9:15 and 10:45 tomorrow. Which works better for you?” Perhaps, you’ve been nurtured into the sales philosophy of showing respect for the buyer by asking open-ended questions: “What does your schedule look like this week?” Perhaps, you’ve been taught to use both kinds of question.

And then, maybe, in an effort to make yourself a better salesperson, you’ve done some of your own research outside of your sales manager’s lectures and corporate sponsored seminars. Perhaps you Googled “questions in sales” and stumbled across articles such as “23 Penetrating Sales Questions You Need to Start Asking” by Kelley Robertson and “Powerful Questions to Qualify Sales Opportunities” by Lori Richardson.  Or, perhaps you’ve visited a bookstore and picked up a copy of The Secrets of Question Based Selling by Thomas Freese.

So, you’ve done all your research. You know the right questions to ask. You know how and when to ask them. You’re perfectly prepared for a productive sales conversation. But, when you finally get in front of the customer and begin to use all of that great insight you learned, something peculiar happens. You forget to ask questions.

You may open up with a scripted question, of course. But, as soon as the customer presents the opportunity, you start spewing out all kinds of product information. You begin naming all of the features and benefits you can think of. You know it’s a good idea to take it slow and gain a better understanding of the customer’s position, but you just can’t resist the urge to talk about yourself. Why is this the case?

I think it’s deeper than methodology; it’s about mentality. You know, on the surface, what you’re supposed to do, but the more engrained vision you have of yourself as a salesperson takes over. And you go for the jugular. Because the fundamental picture of a salesperson that you have conjured up in your mind is one of a conqueror. It’s all about the close.

That’s the goal, after all, isn’t it? To get the sale. To get the customer to sign. To get the customer to say yes. Any questions you might ask are just a means to that end. So, why not go for the shortcut if it happens to present itself? Sales is a battle between you and the customer. If you see a chink in the customer’s armor, the logical thing to do is to take a stab at it.

At least, these are the words with which you choose to console yourself after the meeting is over and the commission is lost. It backfires, doesn’t it? When you stop asking questions and start trying to pressure your customers into buying, they suddenly become resistant to the conversation. The tension becomes palpable and, before long, they clam up. No more objections. Just a flat out, “No!”

So, what went wrong? Well, here’s what I think. And, hold your breath, because it’s a bit provocative. Sales is not about closing. Rather, closing is merely the result of something else entirely. It’s about the approach you take to selling. While most salespeople enter the sales conversation as if they are marching into battle, the better approach to take is to enter the sales conversation as if you exploring a new land.

I am arguing for a posture of curiosity in sales. It’s not just about asking questions; it’s about being a questioner. It’s about really wanting to know, solely for the sake of understanding, what makes your customers tick and how their lives and businesses operate. It’s about seeking to understand your customers more than you seek to persuade them. It’s about approaching your customers with a greater desire to learn than to teach. It’s about not being afraid to lose the sale if it means that you can gain an insight.

How about this? Instead of painting an adversarial picture of yourself with the customer, what if you were both on the same side? And what if, instead of going to war, you were seeking to make a discovery? When you have a sales conversation, pretend you and your customer are exploring a new land together. You’re collaborating in order to find out what their problems are and how they can best be solved. That is your goal–to find the solution, not to get them to buy your solution.

I know this is counterintuitive, and you may even lose some opportunities in the short term. You may find yourself advising certain customers to buy from your competitors. But, over time, your customers will come to respect your input. And, you will be gathering solid information to take back to your people in order to refine your product. In the end, curiosity will pay dividends beyond your wildest dreams.

Too often, salespeople are viewed by companies merely as a distribution channel. I believe this is a great injustice. Salespeople are the final interaction between the company and the potential customer. Doesn’t it make sense for salespeople to also play a role in innovation? Doesn’t it make sense for one of the core responsibilities of salespeople to be information gathering? Doesn’t it make sense for salespeople to embrace curiosity?

Here’s my recommendation: stop trying to close your customer and start focusing on understanding your customer. View every sales conversation as an opportunity for learning. You have the opportunity to learn about your customer. You have the opportunity to learn about your competitors. You have the opportunity to learn about how to become a better salesperson. Always be open to learning. It’s the only way to grow. “Always be closing” is dead. The new “ABC”s of sales? Always be curious.


Douglas E. Rice is a marketer, writer, and researcher who blogs regularly at He is the author of The Curiosity Manifesto, a provocative guide to learning new things and keeping an open mind. You can connect with Doug at Twitter and LinkedIn.


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