The Single Most Revealing Sales Question

If you're looking for the best way to serve your client, you won't find out by asking about bedroom count, square footage, or price.

July 20, 2015

Author and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman suggests that we think of the future as “anticipated memories.” Now consider prospective buyers who are actively engaged in a home search. Yes, square footage matters to them, but does it mean as much as the anticipated memories of their new life in their new home? Probably not.

The typical sales presentation too often ignores the psychology of the decision-making process and focuses on buyers’ wants and needs. Understanding the need is important, but understanding the why behind the need is far more critical. 

Why vs. What

What salespeople are all about the details: square footage, bedroom count, timing, price, special features, etc. Why salespeople are all about motivations. It isn't that the what questions are optional, but rather the what questions do not go deep enough to discover what is really important in the life of a home buyer.

The very concept of anticipated memories suggests that clarity of vision is a powerful component of our decision-making process. Ask yourself whether that vision flows more based on features or anticipated experiences? On bedroom count or on future memories?

To vs. From

Put another way, too many salespeople get consumed with what their clients are moving to. Great salespeople first want to know what their clients are moving from.

I purchased a home two years ago, and among the requests I made to my agent during the search was that the master bedroom be on the main floor of the home. My wife and I exercise regularly and have no problem with stairs. The problem is that we are the often-not-proud owners of a semi-neurotic 13-year-old “Jack Russell terrorist” named Macey. 

In her early days, Macey could jump through the roof. She would stand at the sliding glass door when she wanted in and leap several feet in the air. It was a sight to behold. But one day, Macey blew a disc in her back, and she has never been the same. Since Macey sleeps in a dog bed in our master bedroom, we needed the bedroom on the main floor. 

Some of you might be thinking, “Wait, you made the requirements of a significant purchase decision based on a very old dog?!” Yep, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. With our kids grown and gone, Macey is our family.

Now here is the magical part of the story. Our agent started the tour in the backyard, knowing that we are outdoor people and that the yard was more important than anything. From there, he said, “Let’s go check out Macey’s room.” He named the master bedroom after our dog!

In my mind, it was a stroke of genius because from that point forward, we could visualize the “anticipated memories” of the situation. Trust me, you won’t get that with a bedroom-count question.

The One Question You Absolutely Must Ask

There’s a vitally important question I encourage you to start asking your clients. It will make a tremendous difference in what you learn about them: “Tell me one thing you would bring with you from your current home and one thing you’ll be happy to leave behind.”

This is the starting point to truly understanding the emotional perspective of your client. It will speak volumes to ascertaining what really matters. Feel free to rephrase the question in your own language, but make sure you communicate these two objectives: 1) What are you moving from? 2) What are you moving to?

Digging Deeper Into the “Why”

It is unlikely that you will discover the true from or the complete to after one question. Be prepared with follow-up questions, such as:

  • “Tell me why that’s important to you.”
  • “You’ll be happy about leaving the kitchen behind? Tell me why.”
  • “What is it about the backyard that really means something? Paint the picture for me.”

In short, be prepared to dig deep until you discover the emotional aspect of the question. 

When to Ask About the “What”

So what about the detail questions about bedroom count, square footage, price, and so on? All are important, but none are as important as the emotional aspects of the purchase decision. There are two strategy points to consider: 

  1. Go for the motivation first. The most important information you can ascertain is why the client is moving in the first place. It always starts with a motivation. What is happening in their home or in their world that necessitates a change? 
  2. Your job is not complete until you understand the “why” behind the what. So if someone says they need four bedrooms, you must discover how your client will use each room. If a client tells you they want to move in the summer, you need to know if something is triggering that timing (versus a simple preference). If they say they want a large yard, you must determine how they will use it. The simple catch-all phrase to rely on: “Tell me more about that.” 

Ask the right questions. Be the trusted adviser. Know your clients well. And you will change their world.

Jeff Shore is the founder of Shore Consulting, which specializes in sales strategies for many of the country's largest real estate firms. He is the author of four real estate sales books, including his latest, Buying the Experience. To learn more, sign up for his weekly video newsletter at