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#SalesQuestions - What’s going on?

Liston Witherill
Liston Witherill
14 min read

Speak some words, receive some words. Throw the ball back and forth indefinitely. Cross your fingers that you understand how to avoid miscommunication.

One would have thought that miscommunication would drop with the advancement of technology. Alas, this hasn’t been the case. We’re more connected than ever, yet we seem to stray only further from mutual understanding.

This is the first episode for the #SalesQuestions Series in Modern Sales. “What’s going on?”, a simple question everyone can use to avoid miscommunication.

Let’s find out why we should ask this question to every client:

1. To help you avoid miscommunications, and instead accurately understand your clients’ situations

The more conversations you can have with your clients the better – it will allow you to have a stronger understanding of their expectations and requirements. Communication is only successful when both the sender and receiver are clear in correspondence, so take time to ensure that your message is conveyed effectively. Ensure your conversations are clear, explaining any terminology your clients may be unfamiliar with and round-up your conversations with the actions to take away to avoid overwhelming them or cause a communication breakdown and instead building a friendly, positive and well-informed communicative relationship.

2. To find out, in our clients’ own words, the current situation they’re in

Investigation of the customer’s needs and expectations is where you gain insight of your clients’ situation. Some customers have trouble finding the product they want, don’t know what product they need/want, or don’t fancy searching for it.

Listen, ask, differentiate. To uncover customer motivations, your first step is to listen closely. Doing so, it comes down to differentiating and asking the right follow up questions.

This matters so much because many customers won’t differentiate themselves.

3. To know what’s working, what’s not working

It’s not always easy, but it is always necessary. As a really simple way of analyzing what is happening in your client’s business from more than one perspective, it can help to identify whether what is important to them and what’s not.

Mentioned in this episode:

For more information on remote selling and a complete list of links mentioned in this podcast, visit this remote selling article on our website.

#SalesQuestions – What’s going on?:

Full Transcript

Wait a second, Moses has horns? Well, he does according to Michelangelo, you see Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius the second in 1505 to create a sculpture of Moses. When he was doing research for the sculpture, Michelangelo used a Latin translation of the Bible. One passage in particular tripped him up and I quote, “And when Moses came down from the Mount Sinai, he held the two tablets of the testimony and he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord.” Well, that one single word horned, was translated from a term in the original Hebrew text more closely thought to mean shining or emitting rays, as in Moses was absolutely glowing after a conversation with God. Makes sense, right? But the translation of the Hebrew text was done by a guy named Jerome, and even he noted his own interpretation most closely meant to become glorified. Still, to this day, Moses has horns. Now, Jerome wasn’t there to provide counsel in Michelangelo, they live 12 centuries apart. Maybe if Michelangelo thought to ask someone else for their interpretation, Moses wouldn’t have horns at all. Talk about a miscommunication.

In today’s episode of Modern Sales, I like to help you avoid miscommunications and instead accurately understand your client’s situations every single time you look to uncover their pain. I’ll be diving deep on a single sales question and it’s one that’ll help you understand exactly what’s brought your clients to seek your counsel in the first place.

Welcome to Modern Sales, a podcast for entrepreneurs, business owners, and salespeople looking to have more and better conversations with your perfect clients. You’ll get a healthy scoop of psychology, behavioral economics, and sales studies to help you create win-win relationships. I’m your host Liston Witherill, and I’m pleased to welcome you to Modern Sales.

This is the sales question series on Modern Sales where I’m taking a deep dive into the critical questions that you should be asking in every single sale. These all occur early in the sale when you’re uncovering your client’s pain. If you’re not sure what I mean by that, go back and listen to the episode about finding the pain. It’s linked in the show notes. Now, if you want to look for all of the sales questions episodes as they’re published, they will have hashtag sales questions in the title so there’ll be very easy to spot.

In today’s episode, we’ll be covering the first question, which is what’s going on. This is episode number one of six, so stay tuned for the rest and hit subscribe if you haven’t already. Before we dig in today, this episode is brought to you by Serve Don’t Sell, my sales training and consulting firm. If you’d like to help your team dig deeper, sell business outcomes, and get rid of costly lost deals or price negotiations altogether I can help you with remote and onsite training options. Just head over to to learn more about how it works. Now let’s cover question number one. So what’s going on?

I want to go back to basics for a second. The reason people buy anything is to improve their condition. They may have a deep desire or they may have a problem that needs to be fixed. Either way, they’re seeking improvement of their condition, so what the heck is their condition? That’s where we need to start to figure out what’s going on with them right now, and the absolute worst way to start any sale is to misunderstand their current situation, but it happens. Sometimes we make assumptions during the sales process. I mean, we’ve seen tens, hundreds, thousands of clients before and we think we know what’s going on before we even speak to them, but I assure you I don’t and you don’t my friend. The truth is, you may have a good idea, I may have a good idea of what’s going on with a client, but we need to validate or invalidate whatever assumptions we’re making, which is why we have to ask this question with a very open mind.

So tell me what’s going on? Here’s why you should ask this one deceptively simple question. It’s open-ended, clients can go many different directions with it, and by keeping it open ended, we want to hear the first thing that comes to our client’s mind. There’s a lot of benefit to asking these open ended questions and the main thing is the client can answer in any multitude of directions they choose to go. Yes, you may be surprised at all of the different variations you get and whatever your client says first you can be assured is top of mind for them and that’s what we want. We don’t want to artificially limit the direction of the question by asking it in the context of the product or service we’re selling.

No, we want them to go any which way they want to go. They want to go South, we’re going South. If they want to go Northeast, we’re going Northeast, we are down for the ride. Let them talk, keep it open ended and let them lead the way. They will show you starting with this first question, what’s going on. Your client is going to show you the direction in which they want to travel. Translation, they’re going to tell you how to sell to them. Let them tell you. Now, there are a couple of variations that you can ask of this question. I like to keep it very simple and I just ask, “So what’s going on?” And yes I do drop the G on going. I want it to be informal and that’s the purpose of asking in fairly informal language. You can ask it another way though. You can ask something like, “So what prompted you to reach out or tell me what’s happening that landed us on the phone together today?”

Both of these questions basically ask the same thing as what’s going on, maybe a little bit more specifically, but what I urge you to do is think about whatever’s comfortable for you. Ultimately, you’re the one who’s going to be saying this. You need to be comfortable with what you’re saying and it needs to feel like something that would actually come out of your mouth and not just something you’re repeating that you heard on a podcast. I do acknowledge that you’re going to have your own style, you’re going to have your own way of thinking about things, of phrasing things, but as long as you are phrasing it in such a way that you’re still fulfilling the goal of the question, then that’s fine. Here’s the goal of the question, we want to find out, yes, in our client’s own words. The current situation they’re in.

I typically want to know what’s working, what’s not working and why in the world they want to take time out of their busy day, out of their busy schedule, add this to their calendar and Oh my God, yes, even talk to me. Why would they want to talk to me? Why do they want to talk to you? Don’t you want to know? I sure do, and that’s why I start with this big open ended question. Another goal of asking this question is to pay attention to what they say first, second, third, fourth, it’s going to be an indicator of whatever is on their mind now. Take note of that as well. If they start out with an emotional statement first, you’re going to want to sell more on emotion probably, or at least be more attuned to it. If on the other hand, when you ask what’s going on, now they spout off a very analytical, rational list worthy collection of words, then you probably know that they’ve done a lot of research. They’re probably fairly analytical like yours truly here, my friend.

Yes, I like lists. Yes, I like writing things and that’s going to be an indication of the type of person you’re selling to and how they’re going to like to buy as well. Those are the goals of this question. We’re always going to be wanting to pick up on those additional cues that aren’t in the actual content of their response, but we can start to understand who this person is and what makes them tick and sort of how they like to communicate through their response. We want to know what seems to be the problem and as with all questions, it’s important to ask follow up questions after we hear the initial answer. Typically, that initial answer is going to be fairly surface level. It’s going to be a starting place, not a satisfactory answer to our question.

In order to get to that satisfactory level, we’re going to want to ask our magic phrase follow up question, which is tell me more about that. That’s it, that’s all you have to do is ask that one question. Tell me more about that. Another way to ask this question is what do you make of that? I’m stealing that question from Ira Glass in This American Life, and I believe it was also in Alex Bloomberg’s How To Record a Podcast interview Creative Live. In any case, I’m a nerd about this stuff and I think the power of questions cannot be overstated. And in particular when we’re asking each of the sales questions, not just the one I’m covering today, what’s going on right now, but all of the sales questions that I’m covering, you need to ask followup questions and you also need to ask clarifying questions.

A follow up question is designed to get you more information. If you ask a question like what’s going on now, one of my clients might say something like, “We’re in the middle of a sales transformation and I want my people to sell more on value and get away from competing on price or head to head feature comparisons with the competition.” And I would respond by saying, “Tell me more about that.” Now they may say, “Which part?” And I’d say, “Well, let’s start with competing on price.” And they’ll tell me more about that. That follow up question is designed to pull more information out and what you’re going to do is hone in on key phrases that they’re using in order to get them to say more about whatever it is that they said. Separate from that, I recommend you ask clarifying questions. Often language can mean many different things so whenever a client says something and it could be interpreted in multiple ways, you’re going to want to ask a clarifying question so that you know exactly what they mean and you’re both on the same page, that’s basically it.

Behind the simple question is some powerful psychology and neuroscience and I think it’s worth just spending a second to think about that. Essentially when we ask them what’s going on now they get to relive the situation a bit while they talk about it. When you ask them what’s going on now they’re going to retrieve information and probably even some memories that activate neurons in their head and get them to replay these moments that hold all of the pain that we’re trying to surface that has driven them to this call. The more detail you can get them to share, the more neurons fire and the more emotion becomes involved, the better off we are in this conversation because we’re going to have a richer conversation with our client.

Perhaps it’ll be a little bit more vulnerable. Yes, I said vulnerable in a sales context. It’s okay, we are all people here. The point isn’t to play games with them. The point is for them to clearly articulate what is actually going on and how it feels, and that’s what we want by asking this question. Of course, our goal early on is to establish the pain because we know without the pain, there is just no way our clients will overcome the status quo bias. What the hell is the status quo bias you ask? Well, that’s the inclination to do nothing. It’s the inclination to say change is hard. I already know how bad things are now. God forbid they could get worse by me proactively making a change, so I’m just going to stick with the way things are. We know for sure that our clients need to have enough pain, that it outweighs their inclination to do nothing.

Part of asking this question and diving deep on it early is to really understand what’s behind that pain and just how deep is it. Also, another psychological principle at work here is consistency. When we ask our client what’s going on, they’re going to explain in their own words and the language they use, the very specific turns of phrase, the ways they describe things, the exact words that they use, these words are critical. These words are a form of commitment, albeit a very small one, but a commitment nonetheless in which they are telling you what the situation is. If in the future in the sale you want to go back and reference something that they said, ideally verbatim, they will more than likely agree with what you’re saying because guess what? They’re the ones who said it initially.

That’s the psychology at work here behind this question. Now, one thing I recommend you do is start to plan for potential answers you may hear to this question and every other question I’m going to cover. In the context of each of these questions I don’t mean plan for very specific things your clients can say. What I do mean though is plan for the basic categories of answers you can get. For the question, what’s going on now or so what’s going on? There are basically only two answers you’re going to hear. The first is where they are in the sales process, so if you ask what’s going on, they may say something like, “Well, we’re just doing some research, I’m collecting some vendors, I’m trying to gather some good information, I’m evaluating options, that kind of thing.” And that’s good information. You want to know that, but the other category is the one where we really want to lead our client and that is the change that’s inspired the conversation.

Now, there’s lots of different change that could inspire a conversation. I think it falls into two main categories and those are a change in priorities or a change in funding. Now, these are related to buying triggers, which I’ll be covering in a later episode of the series. But basically what we want to know is kind of what got us to this point, which leads us to the last thing that you’ll hear, which is related to the first two. And that is you should receive a narrative from the client. That’s what we want. We want our client to tell us a story about what happened, what’s going on now and importantly what happened in the past that led us to the present moment. They were doing something that worked for a while, or maybe it never worked, but they decided that was fine and then something happened that made them think, God, there’s got to be a better way. And it led us to this moment.

That’s the kind of story we want to hear. Whatever is the content of that story doesn’t really matter. We just want to make sure that we’re hearing a narrative so that we really understand how we got to this point. Now, you may be wondering when you’ve heard enough, when can you let your client off the hook with the question, what’s going on, you can stop asking them followup questions. You can stop asking clarifying questions. Well, you’ve heard enough when you ask the question and you asked three follow ups and you ask your clarifying questions, I’m not going to let you off the hook that easy. You’ll also want to repeat back to them the narrative that you heard and get their agreement that you understand the situation as they’ve described it. Let them correct you, it’s okay to get it wrong.

The point isn’t to be right. The point is to communicate clearly. Communication between two parties. It’s all right if you’re not perfect at this. That’s kind of the point. We want them to tell us that we’re wrong. We want them to add nuance. We want them to add detail. When you do repeat it, invite them to tell you that there’s something wrong, something you missed, some more detail that should be added. And here’s the big one. You know you’ve heard enough when you understand their situation well enough to move on to the rest of the questions and make a judgment about whether they appear to be in a situation you can help them with or not.

Now, I’d like to wrap up here by giving you some concrete actions that you can take on this question. And the first obviously is go out and start asking the question, so what’s going on? This is in contrast to a solution oriented question. Rather than asking, what’s your interest in sales training? Keep the question completely open-ended and narrow down from there. Ideally culminating and receiving some sort of narrative that your client uses to describe how they got to this moment, you’re going to ask three follow ups and clarifying questions if you need to. If you’re paying attention, you will need to, so go ahead and plan on that.

I recommend you repeat what you’ve heard and you will know you have enough information when you can make a judgment about whether or not you can help and please make the question yours. You don’t have to say, so what’s going on? What’s comfortable for me to say isn’t necessarily the same as what will work for you. Go ahead and customize to your heart’s content, doesn’t really matter to me as long as it’s fulfilling the core goal of understanding what drove your client to start to talk to you and what the narrative is of their situation. Next up in next week’s episode, I will be covering the question, how long has this been going on? And you will be absolutely shocked at just how much hidden information there is embedded in your client’s timeline.

Now, if you aren’t already subscribed to this podcast, please do so by clicking the subscribe button. You can also get notified of all podcast episodes, along with some behind the scenes info as well as other exclusive sales content I put out by signing up for the newsletter at it’s totally free and it’s linked in the show notes. And finally, if you’re looking for help training your sales team to sell more of your big, hairy complicated products and services to big companies, I can help with remote and onsite training options. Just head over to, click the contact button and you can fill out a quick form to begin the conversation. Thanks so much for listening. I’m Liston Witherill of Serve Don’t Sell, and I hope you have a fantastic day.

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