I recently found out that one of the sales people that works with my department almost exclusively is interpreting my questions for clarification as a weakness.  He has given feedback to my supervisor that I need to be confident when providing answers to him (the salesperson).

I have tried, "I'm not sure I understand you, let me repeat that back to you" or "Let me repeat that back to you to make sure I understand" as my fall back answer.  I do realize that I answer about half of his questions this way, but his directions are vague.

Even when it is something as simple as refreshing slides, I repeatedly miss the mark of what he is expecting.  I will ask what he'd like to see different, and am told, "Do it like the last time we used this template" but that's where I started this go around.

There's a political situation here too, where he feels that he is the "top dog" in the organization; the office gossip is that he is untouchable.

Any ideas on better ways to ask for clarification without seeming like I'm causing problems?  I'm open to reading books or articles too, if you found a specific method to be helpful.


ashdenver's picture

Starting any sentence with "I'm not sure ..." is generally going to give the impression of shaky self-confidence, regardless of whom you're addressing.  If those are the first words they hear, those are likely the last words they hear as well.

I'm sure that the "let me repeat that back to you" is one of those tried-and-true communication gimmicks that may (or may not) actually work but I've heard that too many times when speaking with a call center in India that it's worse than fingernails on a chalkboard when I hear it. 

That said, when it's "something as simple as refreshing slides" in a sales organization, they're probably asking for a new client or prospect's name to be substituted in or the most recent statistics (widgets sold, clients on-board, etc.)  When he says "do it like the last time we used this template" he's telling you that he wants you to update or refresh the same data you updated last time. 

"Okay, Mr. Sales Guy - I'll refresh these slides for you and update the client's name to reflect Acme Corp instead of ABC Widgets, I'll update the pricing on slide #7 and I'll plug in Acme's logo - is there anything else you want me to do?"

Most salespeople (IMO) are very "sunshine and roses" oriented but this guy sounds like a massively high D which is to say he wants the bullet points ASAP so he can move on to the next thing.  He's probably frustrated at saying "here's what I want" followed by "I'm not sure..." followed by you "repeating back to him" what he just said to you.  His way of dealing with that is to classify it as "lack of confidence," wrap it up in "I'm giving her manager helpful feedback" and hoping that you'll start cutting to the chase & quit wasting his time with your uncertainty and repeating everything back to him so he can get back to being the rock star sales dude that he just knows he is!

Instead of repeating things back to him, interpret what you think he means (take an action there instead of passively expecting him to become miraculously more clear in his own communication) and tell him that's what you're going to do - and "what else can I do for you?" to indicate you're also ready to move on to the next thing.  If you lay out "here's what's going to happen" and he says "yeah, okay" then you're all good.  If you say "here's what's going to happen" and he says "Whoa, no, I need you to update the pie chart on slide #5 and the tagline on the closing one" there's your clarification.

A friend of mine worked for a guy just like you've described and she was near tears because she'd go do all this work (without ever attempting to seek clarification first) and he'd just rip it to shreds & tell her to do it all over again.  Laying out your action plan (even in broad strokes) is usually a good way to prompt the other person to provide more clarifying information. 

Repeating unclear instructions (that didn't make sense to you in the first place) back to the oringal person (to whom they made perfect sense or that person wouldn't have said it) is just a recipe for disaster, in my opinion.  It still doesn't make sense to you; it still makes sense to him; no actual communication has taken place between the two of you and you both end up feeling frustrated beyond belief. 

If he's "untouchable" then it's highly likely he's going to miraculously change his communication style so it's up to you to change yours - which is why you posted this thread, I'm sure!  LOL  "So specifically, I will work on getting A, B and C done for you. Anything else?"  Or even "Well last time we used this template, I updated X, Y and Z so I'll update those things for you again. Anything else?" 

I hope that helps (and works!)

DiSC profile: 7-2-1-5

slpenney's picture


Great idea.  I used to do that and now cannot recall why I stopped.  I know that at one point I was told to "be nicer" to him.  Part of that was my matter of fact nature and habit of calling out risks (or exaggeration).

Thanks for the phrasing.  I'll definitely be using it during the next request.