What are the Right Questions?

Evan Ross

By Evan Ross, CPSM
SMPS Advisory Chair/Chapter Liaison
Marketing Manager – San Diego
WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff

It’s not that they can’t see the solu­tion. They can’t see the prob­lem.” G.K. Chester­ton

Are we get­ting the right answers? That depends on the ques­tions we’re ask­ing. As busi­ness devel­op­ment pro­fes­sion­als who reg­u­lar­ly engage with clients, we con­stant­ly ask our­selves (or should be), “are we ask­ing the right ques­tions?” Ques­tions that elic­it the most reveal­ing and per­ti­nent infor­ma­tion; ques­tions that drill direct­ly into the core of the sit­u­a­tion, the prob­lem, the solu­tion from the client’s per­spec­tive.

We make this inquiry over and over again to refine our com­mu­ni­ca­tion, to shape our vision and our mes­sage, and to posi­tion our firms to win work. But real­ly, what are the right ques­tions? Often we for­mu­late ques­tions based on expec­ta­tions, learned assump­tions or what we antic­i­pate to be true. Or worse, we frame ques­tions that are actu­al­ly lead­ing; direct­ing the answer where we want it to go. We don’t let the client offer their true, uncon­strained opin­ion or per­spec­tive, or we don’t let them dive deep enough into the mud­dy nuances of the issue. We do this for many rea­sons, often because we think we know the answer or we want our team’s knowl­edge and tech­ni­cal prowess to dic­tate where the con­ver­sa­tion goes—hopefully right to the solu­tion that proves our bril­liance! Or we do it because we know that neat, whole answers require less inquis­i­tive­ness, analy­sis and fol­low up than the neb­u­lous­ness that often accom­pa­nies real per­spec­tive.


Evan Ross speak­ing at the SMPS Mar­ket­ing Boot­camp on busi­ness devel­op­ment.

Does this line of ques­tion­ing get us the infor­ma­tion we need? Prob­a­bly not, and for sev­er­al rea­sons. Because while we’re not get­ting to the root of the issue and help­ing our client explore the many lay­ers of their chal­lenge, we’re also not real­ly alter­ing the com­plex­i­ty of the prob­lem in their mind, even as we’re refram­ing the prob­lem into some­thing solv­able.

So at once we miss the oppor­tu­ni­ty to lis­ten to their most covert moti­va­tions or inten­tions and also to serve as a true advi­sor. And when we sim­ply take the infor­ma­tion we’ve acquired—the proof of our presupposition—and syn­the­size it into what­ev­er form suits our mes­sage or prod­uct or deliv­er­able, we con­tin­ue to ignore the truth: that this is a real­i­ty we’ve man­u­fac­tured for them and not their hon­est appraisal.

So how do we pro­vide a forum for our clients to pon­tif­i­cate freely and share the cru­cial infor­ma­tion we need to tru­ly under­stand their needs? We start by devel­op­ing the right ques­tions. The right ques­tions are free of assump­tion; they do not imply that we have already framed the chal­lenge and sim­ply need to ascer­tain that we are on the right track. The right ques­tions are thought pro­vok­ing and open-end­ed, and allow the client to express the prob­lem in their terms and from their per­spec­tive. The right ques­tions typ­i­cal­ly open the con­ver­sa­tion broad­ly and then home in on more spe­cif­ic themes, and they may be pre­pared to a degree but then guid­ed by the dia­logue in real time. Such ques­tions will push the respon­dent in cer­tain direc­tions, and will high­light or clar­i­fy par­tic­u­lar shared points or thoughts. They may also lead the client to new or pre­vi­ous­ly unex­am­ined ideas, or elu­ci­date fea­tures that were con­fus­ing or cloudy.

Most impor­tant­ly, and as the G.K. Chester­ton quote above illu­mi­nates, the right ques­tions help the client bet­ter see the prob­lem they are try­ing to solve. It helps them dive deep­er into it by step­ping back and explor­ing it from var­i­ous angles. This enables them to more clear­ly define the pri­ma­ry ele­ments of the prob­lem that keep them up at night. And those nuggets are the gold we are pan­ning for in the dis­course; the build­ing blocks of a tru­ly per­son­al­ized, cus­tomized solu­tion that hits on all of the client’s par­tic­u­lar wor­ries and pro­cliv­i­ties. With­out a foun­da­tion built on such spe­cif­ic insight, any solu­tion we posit is like­ly to miss the vari­ables of most import to them. That’s the sort of approach that los­es pur­suits, and leaves clients won­der­ing where we got our infor­ma­tion. Because, sur­prise, that’s not how they saw the issue at all!

It’s help­ful to remem­ber that suc­cess­ful peo­ple don’t have all of the answers, but rather they ask the best ques­tions (and they lis­ten close­ly to the hon­est answers). Find­ing the right ques­tion comes from a lot of tri­al and error and requires humil­i­ty and con­sid­er­able prepa­ra­tion. But the effect of remov­ing our­selves and our assump­tions from the query is the ben­e­fit of a deep­er under­stand­ing of our clients, and a stronger posi­tion from which to serve them.



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