How to Use the Columbo Sales Technique


I’m a younger guy and have not really watched many TV Shows from the 70’s, but one show that is almost imperative that all salespeople watch is called Columbo.

Columbo was a different type of detective show that featured Lt. Columbo. The show usually began with a crime that took place, usually a murder (the audience always knew who has done it and what the details actually were), while the remainder of the show is devoted to Lt. Columbo attempting to solve the crime.

Unlike other crime shows, Lt. Columbo is not smooth talking. He’s not aggressive. He seems almost like a non-threat to a criminal because he’s seemingly absentminded and non-confrontational when he interviews them. He usually walks around the crime scene, scratching his head, and almost looking like a befuddled buffoon. He always wears a wrinkled trench coat. All in all, he seems like a stupid detective and the criminal who committed the murder is almost happy that he’s the one assigned to solve it.


But Columbo is not a stupid detective. While it may be in his nature to act like that, he is a genius. He’s silently gathering nuggets of information and asking questions in such a way where the criminal often opens up to him and self-incriminates. He brilliantly solves every crime that he comes across and is regarded as one of the best TV detectives of all time.

So, how can we apply this “Columbo Method” to the world of sales? And also, is it effective?

Gather as Much Information as Possible

While Columbo is walking around and looking confused, he us actually collecting as much information as he can about the environment and about the person he will eventually get a confession from. He isn’t afraid of awkward silence while he is gathering the information because he knows that by opening his mouth and conversing with the suspect without ALL of the information will not end well for him.

You should be doing the same thing in sales. Before you even go on a sales call, you should gather as much information as possible about the customer, the product, the competition, etc. The worst thing that can happen is that the customer knows more than you do, so do not let that happen.

Keep Probing & Asking Questions

Columbo is a master at this. His signature line is “Oh, before I forget, just one more thing that I HAVE to ask before I leave…”. Of course, there is always more and more things that are eventually asked, but this is a great way for Columbo to break down the security wall of the suspect and get that valuable piece of information needed to get a confession.

Note the video below and see how he just keeps on asking. It’s relentless, tenacious, and sometimes awkward, but he keeps on going!

In sales, questions are your best friend. You want to ask as many questions as possible and keep asking questions until you get the answer that you are looking for, or at least get an answer that you can work with. That being said, you only want to ask questions that will get you towards your goal of a sale. “Fluff” questions will get you nowhere. You have a limited amount of time with the customer. Don’t use the valuable time and fill it with questions like “Oh wow, that’s a nice tie, where did you get it?”

Keep Calm

You will never notice Columbo sweating. You’ll never see him stressed. When he is standing in the same room as a homicidal killer, you’ll never see him acting nervous. When he is looking for information and clearly has nothing, he does not seem panic-stricken at all. He is always…calm. The bad guys may see this as Columbo being a spaced-out airhead, but we know better. Rather, by appearing calm and cool, he is able to buy more time with the suspect and will eventually get what he wants.

Sales is no different. If you start to panic and appear visibly nervous in front of a customer, you can kiss that sale goodbye. Rarely do customers offer a pity sale. Even if you have absolutely nothing to work from, keeping calm and relaxed will keep the conversation flowing with the customer, and WILL buy you more time to keep asking those questions.

Converse, Don’t Interrogate

Columbo is different than other TV detectives. Let’s look at Lt. Columbo against the famous NCIS agent Leeroy Jethro Gibbs.

Gibbs likes to pound his fists on the table, throw his chair against the wall, throw papers everywhere, and yell & scream at suspects. While sometimes, he is successful, most of his suspects just clam up. Usually, the show ends in some dramatic form where his other agents discover something massive that leads to the forced confession.

Gibbs Interrogation Method
Gibbs Interrogation Method

Columbo never does this. He just…talks. He converses in a light manner and almost sounds apologetic for HAVING to ask the questions. This allows for his suspects to let their guard down and reveal way more than they ever thought that they would. Usually, spare a fer episodes, he ALWAYS gets his confession.

While Gibbs’ strategy may work in the world of crime, it rarely works in sales. Customers hate being interrogated. They can feel an interrogation from a mile away and hate it. They would rather have a light conversation that goes back and forth. The second a customer begins to feel interrogated, they will shut up. Don’t let that happen!

Does the Columbo Technique Work?

I have been testing out this method for the past month. I wanted to give this ample test time before I wrote a blog post about it.

The verdict: Yes, it works.

I found that I gained more time with customers, they revealed more information to me, and I was able to get more sales because of it.

COLUMBO -- Pictured: Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo - (Photo by: /NBCU Photo Bank via AP Images)

Give it a shot! You might find that this technique fits well with your personality and will lead to huge increases in sales numbers!



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Author: Jason Karaman

Hello! I’m a marketing, sales, and customer service expert, trainer, author, and doer. I live in the South Carolina Lowcountry with my wife, Ashley. I enjoy reading (history, philosophy, and science are my favorite topics), writing, hiking, kayaking, and all things beach. For media inquiries, send an email to

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