Revealing Proust Questions

When sitting next to a salesperson when they meet their prospect, I’ve long since realised the value of keeping stumm. One rare exception to this policy is when you sense they’ve run off course. Specifically, when you hear a list of endless, machine gun fire, ‘situation’ questions.

They’re the kind of query that elicit factual, uncontroversial responses, and as they continue, their relevance becomes increasingly strained. They’re going nowhere and the prospect is losing the will to live.

I used to wonder why highly paid salespeople didn’t have a back-up plan for this stuttering. It’s not difficult to have a pre-prepared list of questions at the back of your notebook for relief from awkward, directionless interrogation.

I’ve seen reps refer to ‘spin’ prompts. I myself used to draw a good-old 2×2 box at the top right of my note pages and mark each quadrant when I’d covered it. This was the result of a course at HP’s HQ and helped distinguish mainly buying criteria and process.

But what to have as your catch-all questions?

If the rapport has sufficiently built, then perhaps you could build on the kind of chat-show technique so beloved of Vanity Fair; the Proust questionnaire. Answer their 20 questions yourself and judge how revealing it is for you;


French TV presenter Bernard Pivot then amended and halved these for his use. Which in turn was taken up in America by Inside The Actors Studio. There’s four pairs of questions, and two standalone ones.

What is your favourite/least favourite word?
What turns you on/off?
What sound or noise do you love/hate?
What profession other than your own would you like/not like to attempt?
What is your favourite swear word?
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

What’s the solution sales adaptation of all this? You could riff for quite a while on ‘best/least favourite’. Aspects such as role, result, process, competitor, and goal could all be used and provide you with valuable insight. For instance, a fairly standard routine runs along the lines of what’s the best thing about how things currently run, and what they’d most urgently want to address/change.

If you want to stick closely to the rubric, you could simply ask;

What is your favourite/least favourite bit about ‘the now’?
Where does progress or setback come from?
What email/call do you dread/enjoy receiving?
Who’s got the best/most difficult job around here?
What rule-bending trick do you have to deploy?
At the next company annual dinner, what would you like the compère to say about you?

Bear in mind though that the whole point of these questions is to uncover buying emotions. So, once you’ve earned the right to such intimacy of thought with your prospect, they must be both engagingly provoking and innocently revealing to put you ahead of any competing attention.

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