There is one question that often strikes fear in both sales people and job candidates. For this reason, I call it the "nasty little question." In sales situations, this question usually takes the form of "What's wrong with your product?" For job interviews, it usually morphs to, "What are your weaknesses?" Before providing advice on how to best answer this question, it is useful to first understand the underlying psychology behind why interviewers and prospective customers so often ask it.
Why prospects and job interviewers ask this question.
In sales situations, buyers feel as if they are at a disadvantage. Sellers have the advantage of being comfortable in their place of business selling a product that they know better than the buyer. To level the playing field, buyers typically resort to this question to throw the seller off balance and to try to gain a negotiating advantage. During interviews, interviewers have a similar agenda. They want to throw job candidates off balance, test their ability to answer similar questions they will likely get from buyers, and get some indication how they think on their feet under difficult "real-world" conditions. In general, it is a "trick" or challenging question.
It's usually a mistake to admit a weakness.
While most sales people and job candidates feel compelled to admit a weakness, this is a very risky move. Many will not believe the most common answers, which attempt to disguise strengths as weaknesses ("I work too hard" or "the product lasts forever"). Additionally, some interviewers may have the idea in their mind that workaholics are unhappy and unpleasant to work with. After this question was asked in the October 28, 2015 Republican Presidential debate, "Late Show" host Stephen Colbert joked...
"No one in human history has ever answered honestly."
Colbert went on to tell his audience that when he interviewed for the Late Show job...
I said my biggest weakness was sometimes I work so hard I forget to cash my paychecks.
Walking the tight rope.
While Colbert can be funny and get away with it, most people have to "walk a tight rope" to successfully answer. I don't agree with Colbert. To succeed, you have to answer honestly, but not admit a weakness. Sales people and job applicants have to tell the truth because they have to develop a trusting relationship with their customer and employers. Nobody trusts liars, and lies usually are uncovered sooner or later. At the same time, if they admit a weakness, it is likely to ruin the sale or cause the interviewer to hire someone else. Furthermore, admitting you have a weakness is what is in your own head. It has little to do with what the employer or buyer wants. In fact, if you admit to weaknesses, you might be labeled as a "head case" that lacks confidence and is unable to function in a normal working environment.
Why admitting a weakness is usually a big mistake.
In addition to being an obstacle to getting the job or making the sale, admitting a weakness is often the wrong answer. Huh? Don't all humans and products have weaknesses? Of course, nobody is perfect. That is not the issue. This issue is, "What does the customer want?" Only the buyer can make that determination. The seller cannot. The seller might prefer chocolate, whereas the buyer prefers vanilla. If the customer asks you what's wrong with the product? In your mind, the honest answer is that it is not chocolate. However, the customer wants vanilla so asking you does not add any value. In fact, it would give the buyer the wrong answer from the buyer's point of view.
Structuring the answer to the nasty little question
The first question the sales person should ask the prospective buyer is "What do you want?" The job candidate should ask a similar question, such as, "What qualifications are you looking for to fill this position?" This is usually answered in the posted job description. When the interviewer or buyer asks about weaknesses, perhaps the best answer (if it's true) is:
In the context of what you want, I don't see any.
Universal marketing truths to support your answer.
It is important to remember that the marketplace is your mirror. You look and sound very different to the rest of the world than you think you do (remember the first time your heard your voice on a tape recorder). This is why you cannot properly answer the question for a buyer or employer. You have to always reference your answer to what they told you they want.
- Outside-in thinking. If you are self-focused (explaining what you think are your, or your product's, weaknesses), you are likely to provide the wrong answer. You have to think outside-in and find out what the customer or interviewer wants.
- Relativity. The universe is governed by relativity. Everything, except the speed of light (which is a constant) is relative. In marketing terminology, it is based on the lock (the market segment with the unfilled need) and key (the image of your product that fills that need better than competitors). You need different keys for different locks. Some prefer chocolate and others prefer vanilla. Some women like sensitive guys. Others prefer macho guys. If you are a man talking with a women that likes sensitive guys, being sensitive is not a weakness. It's a strength. If you say it is a weakness, you are making the decision for the customer, which will not work.
- Testing you. In a job interview, the interviewer is interested in discovering how you can handle objections. By asking you "What are your weaknesses?" they are testing how you will handle the situation when customers ask you about their products. If you say that you have a weakness, the interviewer is likely to think that you will say the same thing about the company's products, and you are not likely to get the job.
- Intelligence question number one (What do you want?). This will save you in most cases. In a job interview, the job description is your question number one. You can say, "I read your job description, and I do not see any weaknesses. Of course that has to be true. Now, if you do see a weakness, such as you are not an expert in Excel, you can say that you have a working knowledge of Excel, but you are not an expert and that you are willing to work on it on your own time to be as proficient as they want you to be.
- Objectivity answer. If you have a super difficult interviewer that insists on your identifying a weakness, you can give them perhaps the most honest of answers, "I cannot be objective about myself. It is up to my boss to identify any areas where I need to improve. If that happens, I work on this area on my own time to turn it into a strength." You should be ready with an example if they ask for one. If the question is about a product you are selling, you can say, "Based on what you told me you want it to do, I see no weaknesses. In fact, it will do what you want better than other alternatives on the market." Again, this has to be true. If they want to do something your product does not do well, you have to disclose that, and ask them how important that capability is relative to the others your product offers.
Avoiding the traps
To better compete, potential buyers of what you are selling often ask the nasty little question -- "What's wrong with your product?" or "What are your weaknesses?" I hope that this post has given you the tools you need to answer this question so you better succeed at getting hired and selling products.