The Question We Should All Be Asking Our Customers

By Lisa Petrilli

I was fortunate last week to have the opportunity to interview a customer of one of my clients – a business owner whose asset is his intellectual property and his process for using the IP to help his own clients succeed.  I had a list of questions I wanted to ask him to better understand his company’s services, but when I sat down next to him and looked him in the eyes none of those questions felt right.

So, instead, I simply asked, “what are you passionate about?”

Words cannot convey how quickly his face lit up and his body relaxed…it was as if I’d just watched stress evaporate.  He was literally illuminated with delight for being given the opportunity to talk about what he was passionate about. 

As you might guess, he’s very passionate about his business.

Of course, our discussion eventually evolved to focusing on his services, but it evolved from a place within himself where he felt connected to his passion for his company’s vision.  The energy of our conversation reflected this connection and his driving passion.

So what did I discover from a strategic marketing perspective by asking this question?

1. What he’s really selling; what his company is really about on its most meaningful level

We’re all working toward something much deeper and more meaningful than we sometimes realize, and I was able to get to the heart of what that is for him.  Beyond his services he gets great satisfaction from helping people perform at the level they are truly capable of performing at.  But I realized while listening to him that what he is most passionate about actually goes a layer deeper…his true joy comes from watching people transform their lives.  This was a striking revelation for me.

2.  A story

When people talk about their passion there is usually a story behind it – or because of it – that will surface.  As this gentleman talked with me a very poignant experience he had with a client popped into his mind and he openly shared it with me.  It helped clearly and soulfully illustrate what’s most rewarding about his company and how it brings him real joy.

3. A much deeper connection

Anytime I make a deeper connection with someone it enriches my life.  Now I can build on this customer connection in a way that will benefit both of us personally as well as professionally, and will benefit my client as well.  I could not have gotten to this point if I’d fillowed my original list of questions.  I simply couldn’t have.

4. A marketing plan

By the time my interviewee finished talking about what he is passionate about (and yes, he did stop hesitantly several times and ask, “are you sure this isn’t corny?” to my reply, “no, it’s brilliant”) it was clear to me how I could create content that would more vividly depict his vision and his company’s brand via stories.

As we know, great brands are great stories well told.

5.  A whole new approach to interviewing customers that I’m now eager to experiment with

The interview was an excellent reminder for me of how deeply people engage when talking about their passion, and how much they naturally reveal about themself and their business when given the opportunity to share with a genuinely engaged listener.

Do you ask your customers what they’re passionate about?  How do they usually respond to the question? If not, will you try it?  Please let me know in the comments section - I’d be honored to hear and learn from each of you!

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Photo is Passion by _Imaji_.


  1. This is a wonderful concept and a well-written post. What it boils down to for me is this: When you ask formulaic, jargon-driven questions, you get formulaic, jargon-driven answers.

    When you ask human questions? You get a human answer. And that’s something to build on.

    – Your newest subscriber
    andrew´s last blog post ..I Love You For You- Why Ignoring Technology is the Most Innovative Move You Can Make

    • Thank you so much, Andrew. I love how you boiled it down to the human side – and the fact that it’s what you should be building on. Brilliant. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts and I’m honored to have you as my newest subscriber! Wishing you all the very best…

  2. “Beyond his services he gets great satisfaction from helping people perform at the level they are truly capable of performing at.”

    Lisa I think this also applies to you, to a degree. It sounds like you truly enjoy helping business leaders realize what their passions are, and what truly inspires them. I think that inspires you as well. I noticed when you mentioned the client and how he reacted when you asked what he was passionate about. It was as if we could tell how excited YOU got in telling us that. It’s very cool, and I love posts like this where you share what you are learning from the business leaders you connect with ;)

    • Wow, that’s not an observation I expected, Mack – thank you so much for sharing that. The truth is the interview was at the end of a very long day and you’re right, his reaction absolutley energized me. I appreciate knowing that it’s coming through in my writing and will think more about sharing these types of stories in the future. Your feedback is most sincerely appreciated. :)

  3. I love this approach. I am in a similar situation where I have to interview a customer of a client and I will definitely take a similar approach. Hopefully it will yield the same results: thoughtful and sincere commentary versus canned responses.

  4. Lisa –

    Excellent Observation. As you have so strongly pointed out – behind the business plan, behind the strategy, behind the vision, lies the passion that drives all of them. (and us humans!) And when you want to find out where someone’s personal life and their business life intersect, finding their PASSION is key.

    My experience leads me to believe that many people will ask what keeps you (the client) up at night – a good question, no doubt – but I think you will get answers only from one angle – (an angle of pain!) Asking about someone’s passion – what truly drives them in business (and in life for that matter) will open doors that you never thought about before. (and they never realized as well)

    What you have presented (so strongly) is the ability to take “something” that many people feel is so mundane and mechanical (business) and made it into “something” so personal and full of emotion. And as you have pointed out, you were able to get the “story” – the true vision/mission that the fed the client’s business. And that is most important – perhaps it’s not what keeps you up at night – it’s what gets you up in the morning that counts the most!

    Thanks Lisa for your insight and your post – Excellent.


    • Steve, that’s brilliant – it’s not what keeps you up at night it’s what gets you up in the morning. I love it. :) It was a really great experience for me and I’m thrilled to know that it led to some insights and value for you as well. Thank you so much for taking the time to share this with me. I hope to see you tonight on #LeadershipChat!

  5. Lisa,
    This is a great post! It is amazing to see the learning that takes place when you listen to others. This post was a great reminder to me about the importance of finding people’s passions and then directing then into the right direction. Thanks, Brandon
    Brandon Jones´s last blog post ..Whether You Like It Or Not- You Earned It

    • Thank you, Brandon. I agree – sometimes we need to remind ourselves to give as much energy to our listening as we do to other efforts. I’m so glad you received value from the post and genuinely appreciate having you here! Thanks so much for taking the time to comment – all the very best!

  6. Hi Lisa…When I interview a new client for the first time, one of the questions I ask is about their passions. I’m often struck by the fact that either they haven’t a clue – they just don’t give it much thought – or how their passion doesn’t align with their career objectives.

    My favorite clients are those that get it: “Oh, my passion could be my career” or vice versa. My most challenging clients that don’t get it; just don’t see the connection between their passion and their life’s work.

    Scott Woodard´s last blog post ..The Office- Where Work Doesn’t Get Done or How Managers &amp Meetings Conspire to Prevent Productivity

    • Scott,

      I really admire the fact that it’s one of the first questions you ask, and I appreciate your honesty about your “favorites” versus your “challenging clients.” I can imagine that those who are not attuned to their passion can be much more draining to work with… Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and insights – they are always appreciated!


  1. […] recently about how I begin many of my introductory client conversations by asking the individual an illuminating leadership question, “What are you passionate about?”  I have realized over time that it is much easier […]

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