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7 Consulting Firm Rules for Asking Questions

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?

Yes.

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?”

and

“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?”

and

“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.


22 Comments
  1. M Fuchs
    August 7, 2019 at 6:20 am Reply

    Hi David,
    trank you for this great article.
    I suggest to add one more rule: being prepared. With the question to oneself „what do we want to learn?“
    It supports several of the other rules and you show real interest and that you care.
    Cheers Mathias

    • David A. Fields
      August 7, 2019 at 7:41 am Reply

      That rule definitely belongs on the list, Mathias.

      While there are times when we’re asking questions with the sole intent of being interested, far more often we are asking with the intent of discovery. My very first boss taught me, “Never ask a question unless you know what difference the answer will make.”

      I’m glad you made the list of Rules even more complete, Mathias.

  2. Robin Goldsmith
    August 7, 2019 at 7:41 am Reply

    David, another excellent article. Nicely analyzed. In fact, I’ve long emphasized to the business analysis community that effective consulting is largely business analysis and what I call discovering the REAL business requirements that provide REAL value when addressed adequately. To @Mathias’s point, be careful because it’s seldom recognized when preparation and expectation easily fall into the trap of questioning to confirm (probably mistaken) prejudgments.

    • David A. Fields
      August 7, 2019 at 7:43 am Reply

      Eloquently said, Robin. The overlap of consulting and business analysis is high.

      And you’re absolutely right in expanding on Mathias’ point. It’s crucial to be aware of your own biases when you’re listening to the answers and even in how you phrase your questions. Thanks for chiming in!

  3. Derek Fields
    August 7, 2019 at 9:13 am Reply

    One the greatest mistakes that I find consultants make is to listen in their own “language,” rather than listening in the client’s language. We hear certain words and phrases and assume that they mean the same thing to our client as they do for us. So, we need to ask clarifying questions not just to learn their language, but to demonstrate that we care enough to understand them. It is important to keep testing that what we think they said is actually what they meant and not just what we wanted to hear.

    • Dr. Dr. Linne Bourget, M.A., M.B.A., Ph.D.
      August 7, 2019 at 1:36 pm Reply

      Derek, spot on! I have a strong value about learning the client’s language instead of expecting them to learn mine, and talk in business language, not my Positive Leadership jargon. Had a big talk about this with my grad. students back in the day…they wanted the jargon and I was deliberately not teaching it…we made a deal: I taught it to them and they promised NOT to use it with clients, only among themselves for their professional identity.
      Dr. Linne Bourget, M.A., M.B.A., Ph.D.

      • David A. Fields
        August 7, 2019 at 2:01 pm Reply

        Sounds like you did your students a big favor, Linne. One extension of your exhortation not to talk in jargon is to avoid acronyms. Every industry (and client) collects TLAs (three letter acronyms); however, as consultants we’re wise to fully spell out what we’re talking about. Not only does it preserve clarity, it keeps us a half-step removed, and reminds the client that we’re impartial assistants, not brainwashed members of the club.

        Thanks for joining the conversation, Linne.

    • David A. Fields
      August 7, 2019 at 1:54 pm Reply

      That’s a brilliant point, Derek. We all have a tendency to listen for something than listening to truly understand. And, as you said, we assume that we know what the client is saying whereas we may be on the totally wrong track.

      The Rule of Testing sounds like a very good addition to the list, and I’m glad you suggested it.

  4. Mary Ann Dekker
    August 7, 2019 at 11:19 am Reply

    Love your analogy “… questions are the piano keys, listening is the music…”!! I think this would apply to all relationship interactions- I think I’ll try it with family and friends, as well as in business. Also, love your graphics/animations, as always. Thanks for continuing to help us David!

    • David A. Fields
      August 7, 2019 at 1:56 pm Reply

      One of the truly great benefits of practicing consulting skills is that they apply in to our personal lives. Thinking Right-Side Up, listening well, seeking to understand, collaborative problem solving… these are really life skills that we’re paid to apply to our clients. What an amazing profession we share!

      Thank you for highlighting the personal benefits of our work, Mary Ann.

  5. Joe Gregory
    August 7, 2019 at 2:00 pm Reply

    And remember that “not talking” isn’t the same as listening. So often people either don’t hear or ignore the “cues” the speaker is giving us because of the chatter in their head or waiting to respond. Being prepared with set questions can be a trap if not carefully managed. It’s a lot like improv- get the conversation going and work with what the person gives you (cues). Slow down and dig deeper. Trust that the “right/best” question will present itself to you.

    • David A. Fields
      August 7, 2019 at 2:03 pm Reply

      Ain’t that the truth! Preparation should give you the freedom to listen, not a license to ignore.

      And like improv, you’ll always do better by agreeing and redirecting than by disagreeing or abruptly shifting the narrative.

      Great points, Joe!

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