As a consulting firm leader, you know that asking the right questions will reveal your prospect’s situation, uncover their hidden needs, and heighten the perceived value of your solution. Could you inquire more effectively and serve a deeper purpose by following certain rules?
First, though, what is the role of questions? For most adults, inquiry is a route to information. Teenagers wield questions rhetorically to emphasize their point. Toddlers alternate questions with high-decibel toys, both of which drive their parents batty.
There’s also a more nuanced role for questions.
In their subtlest role, questions are like keys on a piano. They don’t actually make the sound we’re seeking, but we must strike them to hear the music. The music, in this case, is listening.
Questions allow us to listen.
Research in 2012 at Columbia University** underscored the importance of listening on influence:
When people feel ‘‘listened to’’ by would-be agents of influence their liking for, commitment to, and trust in the agents tend to increase, thereby expanding the agents’ influence power. [Listeners] reap both informational and relational benefits that make them more influential.
Listening allows you to demonstrate your value more effectively and, in and of itself, helps build the trust required to win a project.
In order to listen well, you need to ask questions well.
The following seven guidelines and the example questions will help you be a better listener; one who builds trust and wins consulting engagements.
7 Consulting Firm Rules for Asking Questions
The Rule of Give and Take
To gain influence, listening must be paired with effective expressing. In other words, you must gracefully interweave your questions with assertions. The graphic below illustrates this point.
The Rule of Permission
Don’t cross the line from inquirer to inquisitor. Asking too many questions, particularly without permission, can quickly backfire.
However, your consulting prospect won’t feel like she’s being interrogated if you preview where you’re going and ask for agreement. Below is an example:
“I’d like our discussion to cover six areas…[say the six] …will that work for you?”
The Rule of Control
Be in the moment, but don’t get lost in the moment. Yes, you have to pay attention, go with the flow and give your prospect (a little) time to stumble through their explanations; however, avoid getting sucked into the weeds and squandering your limited time with your consulting prospect.
Stay in control of the conversation.
Sometimes you’ll need to pepper your listening with statements like the one below:
“I’m sorry to interrupt, but I want to be respectful of your time. Is this a fair summary of where you were going? [Concisely paraphrase the prospect’s point.]”
The Rule of Connectedness
A lame question like, “What keeps you up at night?” shows no sophistication and fails to nourish the bond between you and your consulting firm’s prospect.
Your inquiry can include information that demonstrates your mastery, understanding and empathy.
“You still only have the Kalamazoo plant and it looks like your market share is expanding rapidly into the Northeast. Is that creating the stress, or is there something else?”
The Rule of Collaborative Growth
Questions that demand thought, reflection and assistance to answer foster growth. Employ questions that enlighten your consulting prospect.
Often the ideal answer is, “I’m not sure. Let me think about that.” Then you and your prospect start exploring as a team. Learning, creating value and connecting.
The Rule of Shared Destiny
The most effective questions simultaneously inform a winning consulting proposal, exhibit your concern for your prospect’s best interests, and demonstrate your consulting firm’s dedication to your prospect’s success.
Questions about perceived risks and concerns are excellent examples. For instance…
“What could stop us from succeeding?”
“What are your biggest concerns about doing a project with us?”
The Rule of Listening
Questioning only works if you’re listening.
Remember: questions are the piano keys, listening is the music.
Listen to understand and build a relationship. This means you listen attentively (not politely nodding while formulating your reply) and you listen to information that may not immediately appear germane.
Sprinkle your conversations with consulting prospects liberally with questions like…
“Can you tell me more about that?”
“How does [point the prospect just made] affect [point the prospect made earlier]?”
As consultants, we’re naturally curious. But asking the right questions in the right way (then listening!) is an art. One well worth mastering.
What question have you found to be particularly helpful in conversations with prospects? Please post your answer in the comments section below.
Text and images are © 2021 David A. Fields, all rights reserved.