Drive Discovery from Curiosity

Think about the last friendship you formed.

I am willing to bet that you didn’t spend a lot of time in that first conversation stressing to them what a good friend you could be, how you could bring value to the friendship in a variety of ways, how the friendship would benefit them, and what average ROI they would get by engaging in a friendship with you.

Sounds like a pretty silly way to start a friendship, doesn’t it? And yet consultants often worry that their first meeting has to convey a strong value proposition, differentiate them from any possible competitors, and lead to a series of next steps resulting in the prospect engaging them!  … and all of that in a short 30 minute meeting or email.

Instead, what you really did with a potential friend was to use conversation and questions to understand them, their hometown, what college they attended, what sports teams they follow, their hobbies, how many kids they have and what ages, and so on and so on…  If all went well, you found enough common ground to continue and deepen the sharing.  And as you framed your questions, you probably didn’t know the answers when you asked them.

Granted, a new business relationship doesn’t start out exactly like a personal friendship, but a lot of the key ingredients are exactly the same. People respond to genuine interest and curiosity about what makes them and their business unique and special. They will be pleased if you have a broad enough background to have an interesting conversation with them.  They’ll notice how well you react to their answers, anticipate the business challenges they are facing,  explore the implications of those challenges,  and inquire about what possible paths forward they are contemplating.  They will feel more like they are talking with an industry colleague and not someone who wants to open their wallet and take money out of it.

In the video which follows, I interview Kriss Kirchhoff, an experienced Angel Investor and mentor to CEO’s across the US.   Previously, Kriss was the President of ACCO Brands and a Vice President and General Manager for the Hewlett Packard Company.  In those roles, Kriss ran businesses ranging in size from $700M to over $1B.  He has formed dozens of high value relationships with consultants, and he has led teams of consultants.   Kriss shares what he believes are the key behaviors that consultants must demonstrate to build the trust and credibility inherent in a high value partnership.

Here are three important behaviors which Kriss discusses in our interview:

Demonstrate genuine curiosity with your questions.   Clients judge us by the questions we ask.  Your questions can be informed by your homework, but they should be relevant to the last thing the client said.   That said, it’s OK to come in with a prepared list of questions if relevant, and clearly supported by your preparation.  (E.g. “John, I noticed in your recent article in Forbes, that you focused on the impact of globalization on your strategy…”    Don’t lead the witness.   A lot of us think we’re being clever by “telling”, using leading questions where we already know the answer.  Most people sense that lack of authenticity in a heartbeat, instinctively resist, and we’ve taken a hit in our level of trust and credibility.

Connect the Dots.  Bring your experience and wisdom to the conversation.  Be a continuing learner, and take the time to reflect on the key things you’ve learned and how to convey them with real stories.  If you’re paying attention, you are building a library of powerful stories.  The story you capture today may win you an engagement ten years from now.   In the middle of an energetic dialogue, those stories will connect with something your client has said, and you will bring them up in context.  The client will realize that you are seasoned and can relate to their world.  That feeling from the client is worth a thousand PowerPoint slides.

Trust the discovery conversation, the questions you ask, and the connections you make to showcase your value.    We often overthink the best way to demonstrate our unique value.  If we’ve done a good job with preparation, asking curious questions, and providing informed reaction to customer comments, then we can usually trust that there will an opportunity to bridge into value.  (“You know, John, we had just such a problem come up in our recent engagement with Acme Inc. and here’s how we addressed it…”

I hope you enjoyed the interview with Kriss.  If you skipped over it, here’s your second chance to benefit from his experience and wisdom.  (An Interview with Kriss Kirchhoff)