A well-phrased question:
- Is not answerable in a single word, i.e. it is open-ended and inspires an engaging dialogue on a broad agenda.
- Builds credibility and demonstrates knowledge of relevant subject matter without being forced, boastful, or pompous.
- Opens up and expands multiple dimensions of awareness and concern beyond what was previously known or imagined by the customer or prospect.
- Imparts knowledge, information, and/or guidance. And provides a gateway for ensuing dialogue in which the customer learns more about something s/he is trying to do while the questioner learns about where the customer’s or prospect’s head is at and provides an opportunity to move his or her thinking in the most productive direction.
- Uncovers new areas of interest and concern.
- Identifies conflicts and inconsistencies.
- Inspires Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt relative to specific issues that may impact the customer or prospects ability to achieve desired results.
- Engenders follow up – Lots of it. For example, to check out the uncertainty, address the doubt, and take care of the fear. The idea is to prolong and expand dialogue. Well-phrased questions open a line of additional questions.
- Differentiates questioner’s strengths relative to others.
- Provides a forum for a relationship to develop.
- Edifies, while exposing points of pain points. Does not slam or offend in any way.
OBJECTIVES WHEN ASKING QUESTIONS OF CUSTOMERS or PROSPECTS
- Learn what is “Hot” for every person involved in any way.
- Drive toward a clear and unambiguous articulation of the business objectives which underlie and make the case for value to be delivered.
- Identify and begin to develop relationships with the key influencers, decision-makers, and visionaries.
- Gauge and positively influence the commitment of stakeholders to implement the change required by what is to be delivered.
- Uncover inconsistent goals, objectives, and priorities.
- Establish and enhance credibility.
- Compile a database of responses for further analysis and follow up.
- Start with open-ended questions and follow up with more focused questions to get at specifics points of interest or concern.
Clarity and Alignment
- What is [organization] trying to do? How is it going? How do you know? In the context just outlined, what is it that you personally are trying to do? And how is that going? How do you know?
- Who at [organization] is driving this initiative? Is s/he empowered by the organization to make decisions, set direction, align and allocate resources, and motivate action? What does s/he stand to gain or lose from the intiative? If this person were your best friend, what is the best advice you could give him/her regarding this initiative (assure that the answer is given in confidence)?
- Who in the organization seems resistant to this initiative? What do you think are their concerns? What approach might help get them get on board?
- What role do you see yourself playing in this initiative? How committed do you personally feel to its success? What will it take from you to ensure success?
- How do you believe this initiative might impact [organization]? Which areas will be most affected? Will yours? Do you see possible organization changes resulting from a success? What might the new organization look like? What benefits might accrue from these changes?
- In terms of day-to-day operations, are there particular areas or tasks which you recommend the team focus on? Which do you think will provide the most benefits?
- What is hard or difficult about this initiative? How do you think these challenges could be overcome or mitigated?
- What are the risks, as you see them, of this initiative? What are the downside magnitudes? Which of these are you most concerned about and why?
- What are the top three things you are trying to accomplish over the next performance period? Among the differing demands on your time, how do you view the relative importance of this initiative? Why?
- What are the overwhelming business reasons for engaging in this effort? Which are most important to you? What, given this, is its business value to [Organization] and to your area?
- What other alternatives to this initiative were evaluated? What were some of the reasons, pro and con, for considering these? Which elements of these other alternatives do you believe we need to preserve?
- How do you define success for your efforts in three-to-five years? In your opinion, how can our initiative help you achieve that success? What will you be able to do differently from today? Why is that important? What will it be worth?
- For [Organization Name] to succeed, what must this initiative accomplish? Are there other ongoing initiatives to which this one is related and critically dependent upon? How do you suggest that we work together?
- Are there different visions of the future held by others in the organization? How would you describe these? Are there components of these that you believe play a role in your vision? Which ones?
- What do you see as the role of technology in the future of your job?
Thoughtful planning, scripting, and practice with questions that follow these guidelines will payoff handsomely to those who invest their time and energy. Get to the point where you can smoothly, calmly, and causally slip into the most productive line of questioning when the opportunity presents itself. Then go out of your way to create such opportunities and take full advantage when they come about.
Engage everyone you can at the customer and prospect site to learn where they stand and to cultivate and expand their thinking about what is possible and how you and your organization can best help them achieve the biggest possible lift in performance as soon as possible.
When conversation ends, immediately find a quiet place to make notes about what was learned, what worked well, what you would do differently next time, and what you will do next. Follow up and share what was learned with management and teammates.