Clarify, Don’t Assume


(By James Bahm) When you hear hoofbeats, think zebras, not horses. This is as true in sales as it is in medicine or any other industry. In other words, don’t think the obvious — look at several solutions, not just the obvious.

I see this often with my colleagues in sales. They get so used to looking at solutions only one way that anytime a customer asks them something, they immediately assume one thing, when in fact the customer is asking about something else entirely.

You do remember the definition of assume, correct? I remember my teachers in Catholic school drilling it into our noggins at an early age. Stop assuming you know the answer. You don’t.

I received an email from a customer the other day, and I had to scratch my head a few times and reread the question. After a few attempts, I sent a reply asking a few clarifying questions. This is even more important if they ask you something that has multiple meanings.

Obviously, the best approach is to call them and have a brief conversation; time doesn’t always permit that, however, and so you email them.

Here is a template I use with great success and I’m sure it’ll help you, too:

Mr./Mrs. Customer,

Please help me help you by helping me better understand what you are asking.

When you ask _____, are you asking about _____?


Are you asking this _____?

For example (Typically, the only clients who’ll ask about their CPP are going to be agencies – I’ve never had a local-direct client ask about CPP, but they do ask about our ratings. Instead of getting into a 4.6 vs. a 5.8, I’ll use real numbers):

When you ask about ratings points, are you asking what your cost per point is?


Are you asking what our average ratings are for the dayparts you’re scheduled for?

Our morning drive averages 56,800 unique listeners every 15 minutes, while our afternoon drive averages 73,500 unique listeners every 15 minutes.

This means the more consistently your message airs in these dayparts, the more you will engage our audience and drive these consumers to your website, which you stated was your ultimate goal because once they’re on your website, you’re able to schedule more sales appointments.

Be sure to separate your questions on different lines. It’s much easier to read, and it ensures that both questions are read separately. I know managers love writing emails that contain multiple questions in the same paragraph – this is a horrible habit that everyone should break.

When you write an email, you must use no more than two sentences per paragraph and use no more than five paragraphs per email. If you need to say more than that, make a phone call. Formatting your emails this way will not only get replies faster, but you’ll also get your questions answered and eliminate the need for more follow-up replies.

The only time I ever send longer emails is when I send my introduction email – and when I send this, I do so when I’m on the phone and I tell the customer, “I am sending you a lengthy email. It contains very important information and addresses several FAQs. Moreover, the bottom of the email has links to our website. The reason I chose these links is I’m also a customer of our products and when I looked at these pages, these stood out. The information in them is frequently updated, so please be sure to bookmark them.”

I’ve never had a customer complain about the email I send, nor have they ever asked me questions about anything contained in my email.

Every station’s/cluster’s process is unique. Why not put the highlights and timelines in an introductory email, letting your new customers know what to expect?

I know Paul Weyland taught me to always think like a customer, and he is the reason I always say this. You need to think like a customer in every interaction you have with your customers. If you have a question and the person you’re speaking with replies but in a way that has nothing to do with your question, what do you do?

Do you restate the question to clarify what you’re asking about? Or do you ignore it and stand there confused?

When you hear those hoof beats, start thinking zebras, not horses. Never assume you know what’s being asked. The more you ask clarifying questions, the more information you’re going to receive, and the more information you receive, the more business you’ll obtain. Customers are ready to advertise with the individuals who take the time to listen to what they’re saying and who feel they’ve been heard and understood.

The only way they will get this from you is by taking the time to ask for clarity when the situation before you is murky with the confusing sound of horses galloping about, when in reality, a few zebras are needing to be let into the barn to rest.

Bottom Line: Better communication is easy when you ask for help to better understand the question being asked.

James Bahm has over 30 years’ experience in broadcasting, sales and marketing, and recruiting and hiring. He is the author of Don’t Yuck My Yum – a Professional Development and Sales & Marketing book – which is available on He can be reached via email: [email protected].


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