Article: Debra Koontz Traverso

The Small Business Library

July 7, 2000

The Top 10 Awkward Questions Small Business Owners Receive and How to Answer Them

There's nothing as awkward as unexpectedly being asked a question whose answer could prove embarrassing or too revealing of you and your company's size, age, success or standing.

Below is a list of ten questions affecting image that are frequently asked of small business owners. (For the full text -- including 15 additional questions -- see my book, "Outsmarting Goliath: How to Achieve Equal Footing with Companies That Are Bigger, Richer, Older and Better Known," Bloomberg Press.)

Prepare your clever, insightful and not-too-revealing answers now so that you can deliver them in an extemporaneous manner when necessary. For some of the tougher or more potentially damaging questions, I have provided guidance or suggestions.

And finally, remember: if you're ever in doubt or your back is against the wall, always opt for honesty. Not only is it the best business policy, but it's easier to remember the truth than it is a lie.

  1. How are you? Was the trip good? Did you have trouble finding us?

    A:  You are terrific, the trip was pleasant, and you had no trouble finding them. That's because you're always positive, you enjoy every aspect of your work, and you take the time to get directions in advance. Don't let anything negative enter into your conversation. Keep everything positive, even the basics of finding your client despite a congested city, an early morning flat tire, and three wrong turns.

  2. How long has your company been in business?

    A:  If the answer is only a short time, then expound on how much experience you gained in the field prior to launching the business.

  3. How many employees do you have?

    A:  Fortunately we are small, which will be to your benefit. You see, our competitors are larger; they have more employees. We prefer to work with associates on an as-needed basis. This way, rather than assigning an employee who isn't specifically qualified to do the job you need accomplished -- as our competition must do to ensure their people are billable -- we can pick and choose from a long list of associates, selecting the professional most qualified to do your job. We do this so that you'll be satisfied and turn to us again.

  4. How large is your company?

    A:  You don't have to give numbers. Instead say: Large enough to handle this project with the best people on staff, or something else true but equally noncommittal. Then move on to add: My contacts for this job range from... or My vendors know that I expect... , thus giving your client the assurance that he's actually seeking.

  5. How many people work for you?

    A:  When someone asks this, you could laughingly answer: About half of them, then quickly change the subject. (A word of caution: evaluate each situation before using this technique* sparingly. Your words could imply that you're not happy with your staff or that the staff is lazy.) When you must provide the information, instead of just saying five, try this:

      Them: So, how many people work for you?
      You: Well, given that we are open six days a week, can turn around orders within a day, have the latest in equipment and a client base of more than 75 satisfied customers, how big do you think we are?
      Them: Oh, I don't know...20?
      You (very proudly): Five! Isn't that great?

  6. Who is using your products/services in the same way that we plan to use them?

    A:  If the answer is no one, be up front about it. Say something like this: No one. This is an opportunity for you to be a leader. This means that use of this product/service will establish you as an innovative thinker and may even bring you coverage in the local press or others in your industry.

  7. What products or services do you plan on introducing in the near future?

    A:  Here's your chance to educate your client about what services you provide; and because you've done your homework and have a good idea what his/her needs are, you can share the fact that you're considering launching a product or service that you know will pique interest.

  8. Have you done innovative things (inaugurated new systems, developed new procedures) for other companies?

    A:  Of course you have! You have developed very good solutions to other clients' problems. Due to confidentiality agreements, you can't share their names, but you'd be happy to share the problems and solutions.

  9. How is your company organized?

    A:  You can't say: Well, my company has five levels, and I'm all five of them. Instead say: I'm in charge so if you have problems, you'll be working directly with me. Then quickly move on.

  10. What do you think of XYZ's (your competitor's) products or services?

    A:  You may not think much of them, but you don't say that. Instead say: XYZ and I have a friendly association and I admire their (choose something innocuous); however, for specifics about their company, you should probably talk to them. I can tell you that we differ in that we... (expound heartily on your own virtues).

Article by Debra Koontz Traverso, who can be visited on the web at