Problem Questions

Continuing to explore how great questions can assist in winning new clients.

Problem questions explore difficulties and dissatisfactions in areas where the seller can help. Use them as soon as you have sufficient information about the prospect’s situation to indicate a probable area where your expertise can help.


“Are you worried about the quality of your financial information?”
“How difficult is it to prepare this report to your bank?”
“What effect has this situation had on your collections?

Often your extensive experience with similar businesses enables you to quickly diagnose a prospect’s problem and have a good idea of what you would prescribe to solve their problem. Unfortunately, the prospect may not see the problem the way you do. The prospect may be completely unaware of their exposure to a possible penalty. Or else he or she may not view the situation as a serious problem.

Your experience enables you to diagnose a problem sooner and with less information than the prospect would need to come to the same conclusion. Your vast experience is a mixed blessing because we often “get ahead” of the prospect.

It is important that you don’t give ‘premature answers’; allow yourself time to think. Don’t try to solve anything in 20 minutes. If the matter is important, it deserves the time. And taking more time makes your response more credible.

Key Point: The problem is not real to the prospect until he or she can clearly perceive it. Problem questions help the prospect to perceive problems more clearly. Inexperienced salespeople generally do not ask enough problem questions. Successful salespeople ask lots of problem questions.

Also remember that — just as you want to look competent to the client — so does the client want to look competent to you. So, they will minimise or explain away problems.


Accountants already know the answers to these. The prospect does not. Thus, most accountants do not ask enough implication questions. Many ask NONE. Big mistake! Most accountants ask only enough situation and problem questions to diagnose the prospect’s need. Then they “cut to the chase” and tell the prospect how they can solve the problem. The accountant’s problem-solving expertise is a mixed blessing because it enables the accountant to “get ahead” of the prospect.

In selling a professional relationship, this is not good enough.

Accountants must ask this third type of question which is more complex and sophisticated. Implication questions help the prospect understand the seriousness or urgency of their problem.


  • “How does this problem affect your profitability?”
  • “If you do nothing, what will the outcome be? Short-term? Long-term?”
  • “What effect does sending the report late have on your banking relationship?”
  • “What will happen to your expansion plans if you cannot get the additional financing?”
  • “What will happen to your business if your daughter [son] does not want to take over? How will you retire? Whom would you sell to?”
  • “Could that lead to a distress sale by your heirs?”

Implication questions make prospects think about the effects or long-term consequences of these problems. They tend to increase prospects’ dissatisfaction with the status quo and encourage them to seek a solution. Implication questions are among the most powerful questions you can ask. 

The purpose of implication questions is to take a problem which the prospect perceives as small and build it up to one large enough for the prospect to take action.

Plan your implication questions in advance; they are hard to make up on the spur of the moment.

If I say it, you may doubt it. If you say it, it is the truth.


Implication questions are useful in selling to decision makers, because decision makers deal in implications. Implications are the language of decision makers. Implication questions centre on the problem. Thus, they make it more serious.

Payoff questions focus on the solution. Thus, they increase the value of the solution.


Payoff questions get the prospect to tell you the benefits your solution would offer. They build up the value and usefulness of your services.


  • “How important is it solve this problem? Why? How would your life [business] be better?”
  • “Would it be useful to get the collateral report to the bank by the tenth of the month? How would this improve your banking relationship?”
  • “Why would this solution be useful to you? What improvement would it make in your situation?”
  • “If we could get your monthly financial statements to you by the seventh working day of the following month, how would that help you?”
  • “If we could help you obtain £/$_________ of additional financing, how could that increase your business?”
  • “What would your operation look like if you solved that problem?”
  • “How would your life improve if we could solve that?”
  • “Is there any other way this could help you?”
  • “What do you think a good accounting firm could accomplish for you?”

Caution: Build up the prospect’s needs before you ask need-payoff questions. Asking need-payoff questions early in the meeting puts people on the defensive.

Example: How would you feel if a salesperson opened a meeting by asking “Would you be interested in a faster way to get new clients?” It is a condescending, boiler-plate question that does not ask for a real response. Identifying the payoff lets the prospect see you as the one who focused on positive results. Also, it tells you the prospect’s reality, so you know what to tell the prospect when you begin to match your firm’s capability to their needs.

Key Point: Payoff questions direct the prospect’s attention to the solution rather than the problem. This creates a positive problem-solving atmosphere where you pay attention to solutions and actions, not just problems and troubles.

Top performers ask more than 10 times as many Payoff questions as average performers.

One great question: “What additional things would you want from your accountants if price were no object?”

Payoff questions are particularly effective when selling to decision influencers who must present your case to the boss.

Prospects see need-payoff questions as positive, constructive, and helpful — a good way for them to perceive you.

Payoff questions are also great in selling to current clients.

Practice need-payoff question in advance.


  • “Why do you think it would be helpful to?”
  • “What would this let you do that you cannot do right now?”
  • “Would this help anybody else in the company?”
  • “Do you think this would have any cost advantages over?

Success in obtaining new clients depends on how well you handle the interview or diagnosis.