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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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