Locking-On to Customer Emotion

The lock-on sales question is a powerful tool that allows you to get customers to open up quickly. Instead of becoming bogged down in superficialities, the conversation reveals facts and experiences that really matter. You can use this information to better understand the customer’s emotions, beliefs and values.

A leading research firm has found that customers don’t verbalize their real concerns and problems 80 percent of the time. In other words, most of our time with customers is spent talking about the wrong stuff!

It’s not that customers intentionally try to mislead you. It’s simply human nature to try to conceal issues that might reveal vulnerability.

Here’s why lock-on questions work: Though people avoid revealing their vulnerabilities directly, they often drop verbal hints about their true state of mind. It’s as if they’re saying: “If you can show me that you’re listening carefully enough to pick up on these clues, then I’m willing to trust you.” The lock-on question shows you’ve listened well, and at the same time allows you to direct the customer’s attention to a particular point, allowing you to move toward a solution quickly.


Another benefit of the lock-on question is that it helps customers clarify their thoughts and feelings. Oftentimes in conversation customers will use words and phrases such as quality, partnership and streamlining the process without really defining them. Lock-on questions prod customers to articulate their problems and expand on their ideas.You begin by inviting the customer to talk about his or her situation. You’re listening for words that suggest underlying emotions.

For example:

Customer: We’ve been trying to get this project off the ground for several months.

Lock-on question: I noticed you said the word trying. What’s worked so far and what hasn’t?

Trying is the key word to focus on in this example. It suggests some frustration at not being able to reach a goal.

Another example:

Customer: I’m looking for a partner, not a vendor.

Lock-on question: Could you give me some specifics of what you mean when you say partner?

One more example:

Customer: My company has been experiencing problems with our current vendor and we’re looking for someone new.

Lock-on question: Can you give me an example of the problems you’ve been experiencing?

The power that comes from asking for examples cannot be overemphasized. A customer who reveals a past problem re-experiences the emotional trauma of that problem.

In all of these examples, the salesperson is alert for words that suggest emotions. Other words and phrases include: dealing with, concerns, hopeful, seeking, doubts, challenges and having difficulties. These words and others like them suggest that a customer’s needs are not being met completely.

Lock-on questions are powerful, so you have to use them sparingly. A conversation peppered with lock-on questions would seem false and uncomfortable and could make customers feel they’re being interrogated. And owing to their personal nature, these questions shouldn’t be used too early in the relationship; otherwise, you may come across as insincere or even sarcastic. Use lock-on questions only after you’ve established some degree of rapport and empathy with the customer.


If you feel the questions are too direct, you can use buffer statements to preface them.

For example:

“Help me understand…”

“Would you mind…”

“Could you clarify for me…”

The beauty of lock-on questions is that you’re guiding the conversation without strong-arming customers. They’re the exact opposite of manipulative, high-pressure sales “questions” (“What do I have to do to get your business today?”). They’re not about the salesperson’s agenda; they’re about understanding the customer’s needs. They’re a powerful tool, easily mastered, and useful in just about every kind of sale.

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Paul Cherry

For over two decades, sales expert and author PAUL CHERRY has helped B2B sales professionals close more deals in all major industries. As a recognized thought leader in customer engagement strategies, Paul Cherry has been featured in more than 250 publications, including Investor’s Business Daily, Selling Power, Inc., Sales & Marketing Management, The Kiplinger Letter, and Salesforce.

Performance Based Results

Paul Cherry is the president of Performance Based Results. PBR delivers intense, customized sales team training programs and sales management coaching to companies throughout North America. Paul has worked with more than 1,200 organizations, including 175 of the Fortune 500, plus more than a thousand entrepreneurial, small to mid-sized, cutting-edge businesses looking to dominate their niche markets. Clients typically get 7 times their return-on-investment (ROI) or better.

Questions That Sell

Paul Cherry’s top-rated bestseller, Questions That Sell: The Powerful Process for Discovering What Your Customer Really Wants (AMACOM) has been listed on BookAuthority’s “100 Best Sales Books of All Time” and has been published in four languages. He is also the author of Questions That Get Results (Wiley) and The Ultimate Sales Pro (HarperCollins Leadership).