Leading with the ask

posted: May 8, 2021

tl;dr: On one important occasion in my life, the sales technique of leading with the ask worked perfectly...

I’ve never had any official sales training, of the kind that 20th century Big Tech leaders Xerox and IBM were famous for providing their newly hired sales representatives. Before they ever participated in their first sales call, new hires had to complete formal months-long programs that consisted of classroom lectures on sales techniques, human psychology, and the company’s products. Yet I’ve been on many sales calls with top notch sales professionals, some of whom did start out their careers at a company that put them through a formal program. By watching them in action, and discussing what they did in pre- and post-meeting sessions, I picked up some of the techniques and best practices.

One of those techniques is “leading with the ask”. On most sales calls, you engage in a discussion with the prospective customer without explicitly stating what you, as the seller, are here to ask the customer to agree to. Or you may not bring up the ask until the end of the meeting, if the discussion has gone well. But when “leading with the ask”, you tell the customer at the onset of the meeting what you want them to do. It’s risky, and is best done when you already have an established relationship with the customer.

The setting where I used the technique, at the spur of the moment, was when I asked my future father-in-law for his daughter’s hand in marriage. I had already proposed to the woman who became my wife, but she cautioned me that, in order for our engagement to be official, I would have to get the approval of her father. Her father was a Bostonian who was born in the first first part of the 1900s, and hence he expected certain traditions to be followed, including the one of getting the father’s approval for marrying a daughter.

My wife is the youngest of six, and, quite naturally, was the last of her siblings to find a life’s partner. All five of her siblings were already married at the time. Her parents were older than most kids’ parents, and she was the last impediment to them becoming empty-nesters. This, it turned out, was a consequential fact. Also important was that I had met her parents on a few occasions at their house, so I was already somewhat known to them, in addition to what my soon-to-be-fiancée had told them about me.

I prepared a short speech which I felt would convince my future father-in-law that I would be a good husband for his daughter. I was going to emphasize my schooling, work ethic, and the good job that I held at the time. I also was going to talk about the importance of family to me, and the impact my own family had had on me. I was prepared to discuss some of our plans for the future. I did not practice my speech in front of a mirror: I prefer to remember the main points I’m trying to make, rather than memorize every single word of a predetermined speech (I discuss this process in my Public speaking tips post). Beforehand, I simply reviewed in my mind the points I was going to make.

I arrived at my future fiancée’s parents’ house and was seated in the living room in a chair across from her father. My fiancée and her mother were in the kitchen, listening to every word. For some reason, at that very moment, I decided to “lead with the ask”. So I looked him in the eye, and said very firmly, “Sir, I want to marry your daughter,” fully expecting that I would then launch into my speech.

Before I could get another word out, her father lept out of his chair with a big grin on his face, said “Congratulations!”, and shook my hand vigorously. My now-official fiancée and her mom came out from the kitchen. There were hugs and smiles and congratulations all around. I never had to say a word that I had planned to say.

Some time later, I realized what really had transpired. My wife’s parents had already passed judgment on me. They were thrilled to marry off their youngest daughter, and to finally empty the house of their children. It was an easy sale. I had actually over prepared, which is not a bad thing to do in any sales situation. “Leading with the ask” does work, in certain situations.

Related post: Don’t sell past the close