The Questions to Ask (Jim Karrh On Marketing)

by Jim Karrh  on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019 12:00 am   3 min read

The marketing leader for a medical-supply business, two years into her job, was clearly frustrated. “Our people don’t ask good questions,” she said. “We miss opportunities to sell more from our portfolio because we jump right into a pitch for one thing.”

The issue she described was two-pronged. First, it became obvious during discovery that sales reps weren’t asking very many questions at all. Second, when reps did ask questions they struggled with tailoring their questions strategically for different situations.

This is a common and potentially expensive problem. To gain some more insight, I recently spoke with an expert in questions. Frank Sesno is a former CNN anchor, White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief and is now the director of the School of Media & Public Affairs at George Washington University. As a guest on my “Manage Your Message” podcast, Sesno said he is “alarmed that we assert more than we ask” these days. Journalists and business professionals are “all operating in information-overload mode,” so we need a sound approach in order to rise above our instincts.

Sesno is the author of “Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions, and Spark Change.” In the book he details 11 categories of questions. In this space, let’s talk about four that are likely most relevant to your business conversations.

Diagnostic questions are needed in times when something just isn’t right. They can help you — along with your customer or prospect — identify a need and the right solution. The first step is history taking (When did you first notice the problem? How did it appear? How does it compare to the past?). Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence that those who do literal diagnoses need help. A recent study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that physicians give patients an average of only 11 seconds to describe their condition before cutting them off. Sesno said that, “My biggest surprise with the book has been its reception in the medical community. … They realize they don’t do this well.”

Strategic questions inform the big decisions, when it’s vital to look beyond the immediate horizon and make clear the objectives, risks, trade-offs and alternatives. Sesno uses the example of Colin Powell, who used questions in a group to challenge assumptions and gain clarity. Powell’s “commander’s rule” was that the leader in strategy sessions speaks no more than 30 percent of the time.

Mission questions draw people into a partnership to address a big but solvable problem. As Sesno put it, “Mission questions ask more of everybody.” Think of the conversations around raising money for a cause, examining a mentoring program or organizing a neighborhood activity. One of the best questions Sesno shared in the interview comes from Rick Leach, CEO of the World Food Program USA, who in fundraising conversations is likely to ask potential supporters, “What do you want your role to be?”

Entertaining questions are great when we want to network, connect and entertain better — but when we aren’t extroverts or the life of the party. Sesno is very experienced as a talk show host and moderator; he knows that in such settings it shouldn’t be about the host. Good questions draw your guests in and keep the group energized. He shared a story from when he was a guest at a dinner party. The night before, the host had emailed a question for everyone to think about: “What is not obvious that just blows you away?” At the party, everyone was mesmerized by a venture capitalist from India who talked about air conditioning and how what is mundane to most absolutely transformed the village where he grew up.

In our interview, Frank expressed his concerns about the younger generation (“they are more generous with exclamation points than with question marks”). We can all probably ask more — and more effectively — in our businesses and communities.

Jim Karrh of Little Rock is a consultant and professional speaker, a consulting principal with DSG and the host of “The Manage Your Message Podcast.” Email him at and follow him on Twitter @JimKarrh.



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