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7 Inquiry Guidelines Your Consulting Firm Must Master

Asking questions is core to your consulting firm’s approach to winning business and delivering value. Could you ask questions better (and ask better questions)? Absolutely.

For most adults, inquiry is a route to information. For teenagers, questions are a rhetorical way to emphasize their point. For toddlers, questions serve to drive their parents batty.

3 common roles of questions, image illustrating how consulting firms grow

For consultants, there’s a more nuanced role for questions than pure, information gathering:

Questions create the opportunity for us to listen.

Research by Columbia University smarty-pants 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.

In other words, listening allows you to demonstrate your consulting firm’s value more effectively, and the very act of listening helps build the trust required to win a project.

In order to listen well, you need to ask questions well.

The following seven guidelines will help your consulting team become better listeners; the type of listeners who build trust and win engagements.

7 Inquiry Guidelines

Give and Take

To gain influence, listening must be paired with effective expressing.

In other words, you must gracefully interweave your questions with assertions.

Preview Your Queries

Asking too many questions can backfire, especially if your prospect feels like you’re crossing the line from inquirer to inquisitor.

However, your prospect won’t feel like she’s being interrogated if you preview where you’re headed and solicit her permission. For example…

“I’d like our discussion to cover six areas…[enumerate the six areas] …will that work for you?”

Stay on Track

Be in the moment without getting lost in the moment.

Yes, it’s important to actively attend to your prospect, go with the flow and allow your prospect (a little) time to stumble through their explanations.

However, avoid wandering into the weeds with your prospect and squandering your limited time with her. Occasionally, 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.]”

Ask Deep Questions

Demonstrate your mastery, understanding and empathy through impressive questions.

A lame question such as, “What keeps you up at night?” shows no sophistication and creates no connection. Compare that to:

“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?”

Create Paths for Growth

Employ questions that enlighten the prospect.

Ironically, the response to your inquiry that may be most beneficial is, “I’m not sure. Let me think about that.”

When the prospect answers with some variation of “Dunno,” it opens the door for you and your prospect to start exploring as a team. Together, you can learn, connect, and create value… which is an ideal springboard to winning an engagement.

Listen!

This is obvious, but bears repeating. Questioning only works if you’re listening.

Remember to listen to understand and build a relationship.

Listen attentively (not politely nodding while formulating your reply), even to information that may not immediately appear germane. Sprinkle the conversation 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]?”

Stay Right-Side Up

Highlight your dedication to your prospect’s success.

The best questions are designed to simultaneously inform a winning proposal and show your consulting firm’s concern for your prospect’s best interests.

Questions about your prospect’s worries and concerns are excellent examples of Right-Side Up inquiries. For instance…

“What could stop us from succeeding?”

and

“What are your biggest concerns about doing a project with us?”

As a consultant, you’re naturally curious. Directing your curiosity through the right types of questions (then listening!) is an art worth mastering.

What question(s) have you found to be particularly helpful in conversations with prospects?


14 Comments
  1. Robin Goldsmith
    July 3, 2024 at 7:28 am Reply

    Excellent as usual! Actual (as opposed to “active”) listening is a key element I apply and teach in my consulting, classes, and writing. A couple of additional emphases. The listening must be coupled with relevant follow-up and probing questions plus analysis of answers at the moment and later. Beware the trap of “staying on track,” which too-often-mistakenly assumes you already know what to inquire about. In my experience, effective questioning, listening, and analysis frequently reveals very relevant topics you hadn’t been aware of–and which conventional stay-on-track wisdom would tell you steer clear of.

    • David A. Fields
      July 3, 2024 at 8:06 am Reply

      You’ve made a very good point, Robin. Consultants who go into a meeting with a rigid agenda risk missing important information, topics and even desires of their clients. The track you stay on should always be Right-Side Up–about the client.

      Thank you for adding your wisdom to the conversation, Robin!

  2. Terry "Doc" Dockery, PhD
    July 3, 2024 at 7:39 am Reply

    David,
    Great article as usual. However, you left out an important initial greeting and conversation starter that we use here in the South: “How’s your mama an ’em?” 🙂

    Keep the wisdom coming!

    • David A. Fields
      July 3, 2024 at 8:08 am Reply

      You’re hysterical, Doc. That conversation starter is one I somehow have missed on my travels, but I will file it away carefully in my book of inquiries under the tab, “Good to know, but never, ever use yourself.”

      I appreciate your injection of levity, Doc!

  3. Michael
    July 3, 2024 at 7:51 am Reply

    A question I like to ask is in your Right Side Up category. “When we succeed on this project what difference will it make to your business?” This question helps the prospective client get clear on the value of solving the problem and as a byproduct it gives me information that helps me in pricing the project.

    • David A. Fields
      July 3, 2024 at 8:10 am Reply

      Outstanding question, Michael. Your question pairs nicely with the soft-benefits parallel: “When we succeed on this project, what difference will it make to you personally?” In addition to creating additional clarity, your question along with the soft-benefits parallel can cement the prospect’s desire to take action.

      Your addition is great, Michael–thank you for chiming in today!

  4. Jon Gilbert
    July 3, 2024 at 8:24 am Reply

    Pure gold! Thank you, David.

    A favorite question of mine is “How do you feel about that?” I like to test the emotional tone in addition to understanding the facts of the situation.

    • David A. Fields
      July 3, 2024 at 8:43 am Reply

      Good one, Jon! Assessing the emotional state is absolutely key. As you know, of the Six Pillars of Consulting Success, it’s the emotional pillars (Want, Like, Trust and soft Value) that create the impetus for the client to sign.

      I’m glad you contributed your smarts to the discussion, Jon!

  5. Terry "Doc" Dockery PhD
    July 3, 2024 at 9:16 am Reply

    One last thing. I admire high quality communication, and your comment “Couldn’t sell water in the desert” on this week’s Consulting Best Practices episode was the funniest thing I’ve heard in a long time!

    • David A. Fields
      July 3, 2024 at 9:21 am Reply

      Thank you for the feedback, Doc. If only that characterization were inaccurate! (For those wondering what Doc is referring to, join our Monday 15-minute Q&As.)

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