Know your client’s business in order to serve it

Understanding your client’s business

One of the best ways to make a strong impression with a new prospect or customer, is to demonstrate that you’ve done all the homework on them that you reasonably can.

Above all, they want to know that you understand their business, and you have good reason to believe you can help them… before the initial approach.

I’ve found a good place to start is to understand their competitive landscape.  There’s a simple but very effective model you can use as a checklist to be sure you’re covering all the bases.

I’m referring to what is known as the “Five Forces Model”.  It was described by Michael Porter in his 1980 book, Competitive Strategy.  It’s a staple for business school strategy courses.

Here’s the model and some starter questions for you to research for the company and executive you’ll be meeting with:

Competitive Rivaries

Which companies compete for the same customers your prospect cares about?

Large companies operate in multiple segments.  Be sure you’re researching competitors in the same segment your prospect works in.

How much market share does your prospect business enjoy? 

Are they gaining ground or losing ground?    Their strategy will be different if they’re a leader, or a new entrant.

Threat of New Entry

What other companies are positioning themselves to compete in this space? 

At one time, IBM was the runaway leader in computers.  But along came DEC, HP, and a host of others.

What is your prospect doing to create “barriers to entry” to make it hard for others to enter? 

Unique technology, strong reputation, global support capability, other ways?

Threat of Substitution

What could be a substitute in the market that winds up competing for the same users? 

The first portable radio was a substitute for a record player.  The record player was a substitute for live concerts…  You get it!  What competitors are finding a new way to serve the same market need?

Buyer Power

How are their biggest customers influencing their product and service strategies? 

When I worked for HP, we spent a lot of time and energy visiting with our largest accounts to understand their emerging needs.  That yielded a better understanding of the market trends of that customer category, which allowed us to get out ahead or our competitors in designing solutions to meet those emerging needs.

Supplier Power

Who supplies critical technology or raw materials to your prospect’s firm?

Oil producing companies andcountries wield considerable power over companies such as refineries, distributors, and automobilecompanies.

Epilogue

Understanding your prospect and asking well informed questions gives you a leg up on your competitors who rely on lame “what keeps you up at night?” questions.

Customers reward the consultants who invest in understandingthem.  You don’t have to be an industry expertto ask a better question.  You just haveto do some basic research and personalize it to the person you will be sitting across from and the segment they serve.

How to Ask Powerful Follow-Up Questions

Differentiate your credibility by how you respond to what clients tell you

The best advisors are adept at asking powerful follow-up questions.  They  use a well framed follow-up to signal that they not only heard the previous answer, but have processed it to a preliminary understanding, and are now seeking to go farther and deeper to understand the speaker’s full meaning.

Respond to the listener’s expectation

If you’re having a serious discussion with someone, they want to know that you’re really engaged in what they are saying and want to know more.  Your caring approach to listening makes them feel heard, and that you are respecting their knowledge.

The speakers feel honored, and they want to continue the dialogue.  This not only creates a link with the listener but opens the door for deepening the conversation and the underlying relationship.

What’s my investment?

All of these advantages come at a price.

Skillful tennis players anticipate where their opponent will return the volley and begin moving there as their opponent gets into position for their hit.  That form of in-the-instant judgment comes after years of playing, and thousands of volleys.  The equivalent experience from a consultant comes from years of learning and practicing their craft.

Many of the readers of this piece have that level of experience in their domain.  The trick is to be intentional about taking advantage of it as the conversation flows back and forth.  Newcomers to a domain can prepare by tapping into  experienced colleagues in advance of their meeting.  They can ask about the most critical topics likely to come up, and how those topics best relate to customer those challenges.

Steps for great follow-up questions

  1. Do your homework on what you believe will be the critical topics you will discuss in this discussion.
  2. Take advantage of what you already have experienced in those areas to anticipate how the conversation might flow.
  3. If you don’t have direct experience, interview colleagues or available experts to understand the most critical aspects of the topics.
  4. Be realistic about how far you can take a topic.  Maybe ask a question about its relative importance, so .  At a level that you will at least you will know they are critical, without going into any depth.
  5. Invite a more experienced colleague to make the meeting with you.

Then, relax and play the match.  If you’ve done this  level of prep, you will most likely sound more credible than most of your competitors.

Great Reads:

HBR: The Surprising Power of Questions

Trust and Credibility: Research on the top five relating skills

Consulting customers more often buy complex solutions from people with trust and credibility.  

The research:

Since August of 2016, Ascendent Leadership and colleagues at Partners International and Discovery Consulting have teamed up to discover what successful consultants consider to be the critical soft skills to generate trust and credibility.  They are asking which of 20 commonly accepted consulting best practices rank as the most important in creating authentic advisory relationships.  (Original blog article introducing the research.)  While the research is continuing, we believe that the interim results are clear and reflect the consulting community.  (Top five have been unchanged since we hit about 30 responses.  The total number of responses is now approaching one hundred.)

Active Listening was the runaway favorite. 

Top Five Skills Driving Trust, Accountability

84 percent of respondents rated Active Listening as Critically Important, the top quartile of importance.  That was over 30 percentage points higher than the runner up, Asking Powerful Questions.

Here are the results for the top five, ranked by the number of total selections in the top quartile, as a percentage of total responses:Ability

It’s all about discovery!

All of the top five could easily fit under the umbrella term “discovery”:

Ability to establish trust and credibility through their focus and presence

Carrying on on a well-informed conversation about the clients’ business and their underlying success factors

Building on the trust/credibility foundation to discover how the consultant’s value can align with the  client’s most compelling opportunities and challenges

Epilogue:

When we invest the time to really understand our client before we interact, and continuously during our relationship, and when we …

Bring our best level of customer focus and presence to every interaction, and when we…

Are confident enough to open up with what makes sense to us, and what doesn’t, …

Then we earn our client’s trust and credibility, and …

Very often, their business.

If you want the business, find the spark!

I have a friend of mine who likes to use the term “spark” to describe the emotional connection between two people beginning a romantic relationship. Most of us can recall a situation in our past where all the “specifications” for a new relationship were perfectly met, but where the chemistry between the two people just wasn’t strong enough to create an authentic romantic connection.

I’d like to suggest that, as we are talking about a business opportunity with a client or prospect, some of the same emotional wiring that creates a romantic spark is going to be very influential in whether or not we find the energy to support working together.

People have said, and I completely agree, that most people make decisions based on emotions, and then rearrange the facts and logic path to support a decision they’ve already made on an emotional basis.

Here are two questions to consider as we are talking with a client or prospect about a new project they are considering:

Can we feel the emotion they are carrying for the project?

Can we find a complementary emotion in both our client and ourselves that could become the chemistry that drives our working together on that project and others to come?

The answers to these questions could help us understand how committed our contact is to this business outcome.   Often, someone may have reached out to us to discuss a project which, frankly, they don’t care a flip about.   They’re only engaging us to satisfy a commitment to someone else to “look into it”.  That’s a long way from “get ‘er done!”  On their side of the equation, there is no “spark”.   That could be a good sign that this project is a nonstarter. Wish them well, pick up your hat, and walk (maybe run!) for the door.

On the other hand, if we believe that the value proposition for the project is genuinely compelling for this company, then we need to find someone else in the organization to become our champion, someone who has the spark (maybe even created the spark) and who provide the emotional energy for the project to move forward.   Continue the conversation and probe to find that person.  If you can engage that person in the conversation, your chances for success become infinitely better.

Epilogue:  The chances for creating a winning value proposition and a long term client relationship get infinitely better if we can find the emotional “spark” for both the project at hand and the on-going consultant-client relationship between us.

 

Before You Say No, Five Steps to Find Your Yes

After the final no, there comes a yes and on that yes, the future of the world hangs.    (Wallace Stevens)

A sales executive friend of mine likes to say that the selling only begins after you’ve heard the first “No”.  I always liked the expression, but it’s only recently that I’ve been thinking more about how great consultants move past a client’s reluctance to move forward on their recommendations… how they move past that initial No.  As I have thought more about it, I have begun to really appreciate the wisdom in my friend’s saying.

Salespeople call an early attempt to gain customer commitment a “trial close”. When the answer to that trial close is No, many (maybe most) of them decide that the deal is not likely to happen and they walk away. The skilled salespeople use that first “no” to energize themselves. They become intensely interested in understanding what it will take to get to the Yes.  And then, the real selling begins…

In many of his talks, Peter Block tells a story about a young man who asks his beloved, “Will you marry me?” She energetically says, “No!”   His response:  “Great, then we can talk!”   Inwardly, he is thinking, “Game On!!!”   He’s obviously been listening to my sales friend.

Block also speaks eloquently about the usefulness of well managed conflict to define the win-win crucial to effective consulting.  I love his quote, “Insight resides in moments of tension.” (Block 2011 )

William Ury, co-founder of Harvard’s program on negotiation and author of “The Power of A Positive No”(Ury 2007) , says it this way:

“Perhaps the single biggest mistake we make when we say No is to start from No. We derive our No from what we are against – the other’s demand or behavior. A Positive No calls on us to do the exact opposite and base our No on what we are for. Instead of starting from No, start from Yes. Root your No in a deeper Yes – a Yes to your core interests and to what really matters.”

Five steps to finding your Yes:

  1. When you first hear whatever it is that infuriates you and you want to scream “No” back, notice your emotions.  What are you feeling, and how intensely?
  2. Step back, and do whatever it takes to give yourself some time to recover and regain control. Feign a coughing spell, or decide to call a break for some coffee.  Whatever it takes.
  3. Remind yourself that managed conflict is the most positive step you can take to get to the outcome you want, to your Yes. This is a good thing!
  4. Ask yourself, what Yes are you seeking that is inconsistent with their No? Unpack and rediscover your most basic needs and the values.  Which are relevant, here?  Let these questions help you be clear about what you really want and need in this situation.  Your Yes.
  5. Distill your thinking down to a specific interest in this situation. When you get around to exploring that interest with your partner, it will give you confidence and it will make it easier for them to understand your Yes, and align it to theirs.

This series of steps has more moving parts that I can cover in a short article.  Check out Ury’s excellent chapter on Discover Your Yes (Ury 2007) for a much more complete discussion.

Epilogue: 

“A No uttered from deepest conviction is better and greater than a ‘Yes” merely uttered to please, or what is worse, to avoid trouble”      (Mahatma Ghandi)

The young woman in Block’s story begins the real courtship with her honest “No”.  Her suitor wisely recognizes that No as the beginning of the dialogue that he hopes will get him to Yes.

How will you handle it, the next time someone tells you No?  And why did you wait so long to ask the question?

Great Reads:

Block, P. (2011 ). Flawless consulting: a guide to getting your expertise used. San Francisco, Pfeiffer, an imprint of Wiley.

Ury, W. (2007). The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes. New York, Bantam Dell.

How are you showing up as an active listener? Five traps to avoid.

How often do you show up for a meeting or a discussion, only to find your partner in a complete state of disarray, heavily distracted by telephones, email, social media, other employees stopping in to interject a thought or start a new conversation, etc.  You get the picture!  Or worse yet, they show up unengaged, unprepared, and don’t seem to be understanding or caring about what you’re telling them.

Through our research of several behaviors that create high levels of trust and credibility, active listening has emerged as the most critical behavior (by a significant margin) in the eyes of our respondents. With that in mind, what can we as consultants and subject matter experts do to sharpen those critical listening skills?

Researchers in effective communications have coined the term “immediacy in communications” to describe the set of behaviors which either lay the framework for an effective dialogue, or sow the seeds of disaster.  Those researchers define immediacy as the way we signal our motivation to communicate freely, and the positive feelings we impart to our partner. These behaviors, both verbally and nonverbally, communicate that we are warm, involved, interested, and available to communicate.  Verbal immediacy factors include how we use pronouns – are we using I and you, or we and us; our use of formal or informal manners of addressing our partners that are comfortable and appropriate; how open we are to sharing personal information and creating vulnerability; our use of compliments to open the communication paths. Nonverbal behaviors might involve cues such as touch, eye contact, distance and personal space, smiling, tone of voice.  Most of our verbal and nonverbal behaviors tend to be instinctual.  We need to develop strong awareness of our own behaviors and the cues our partners are giving us , to sense how we are behaving and how it’s hitting our partner.

So, what are the traps, and how can we avoid them?

Here is a list of five behavior traps which work against our immediacy, and ultimately diminish the quality of  our listening and our understanding of our partner.  For each trap, we offer some ideas about how to avoid them.

Walking in without a true sense of engagement and honest motivation to help:  Your partner will quickly sense if you’re not truly interested and engaged, and will begin defending themselves against your disinterest.  Before the meeting, try to motivate yourself by finding some element of the situation, your relationship and past history with them, or a thread from a previous conversation that you can pick up on and pursue with interest.

Failing to align with the where they are coming from:   Examples might include failing to pick up on emotions that are working in them at the time, their point of view on the topic at hand, cultural differences and primary language.  Before the conversation, do some homework about them if you don’t know them well, what you might anticipate to be their emotional state, some appropriate due diligence on their business, their role, their background (LinkedIn is great for this).  You should walk in knowing what’s reasonable to know and ready to get to the meat of the discussion.

Failing to provide real-time feedback that lets them know you are really listening and have processed what they’ve told you:  Examples might be shallow feedback that either indicates you weren’t listening, or weren’t comprehending what they were trying to tell you.  Try “reframing” or summarizing in your own words not only what they said, but how they feel about it, what the impact is likely on them, and other comments that indicate that you thought through the implications of what they’ve told you.

Making it about you:    A common faux pas is interjecting a personal story, even if relevant, which breaks the flow of what your partner is trying to tell you. It comes across as if you have hijacked the discussion. Instead, show empathy and maybe an indication that you’ve had a similar experience, but avoid providing so much detail that you break the flow of their story.

Being too eager to prescribe ideas for how to fix the problem at hand:  We often listen just enough to find a common story in our repertoire and immediately go there, complete with detailed instructions about just how to solve their problem. Metaphorically this would be the same as the doctor prescribing brain surgery when we walk in complaining of a headache. We haven’t earned the right, yet, to go to prescribing action.  One common tip is, when you sense that you’re about to make a recommendation for action, shut that down, and substitute another question. Dig in on your discovery questions, until you are sure you understand the issue and they have validated that you understand it. When you get there, then you can invite them to move into brainstorming and action planning if they really want it.  When the active listening is really working, they often discover the path forward for themselves, through the dialogue.  Before you go to action planning, ask permission and validate that they are ready and wanting to go there.

Epilogue:

Active listening is not easy work, but it’s critical to build the relationship and the communications path which is critical to earning our partners’ trust and credibility.

Come to important conversations caring, committed, and prepared, and listen twice as much as you talk.

How are your clients grading you on your authenticity?

blacksmith-700In a recurring theme in our current election cycle, both major candidates are suffering low poll scores with their levels of authenticity, trust and transparency.

In the early 1990’s, I remember there was a university professor and consultant that my company used quite a bit to put on visionary discussions of what was then was called client – server computing. The fellow was quite charming, an accomplished speaker, and delivered a 100% flawless presentation. The explanations were crisp, the jokes were funny, and he never missed a beat. Customers loved it!

That all sounded great, until I took a second customer to one of his sessions. It was then that I realized that the sessions were 100% scripted. Every word and every joke came out sounding exactly like the first time I had heard him. I suppose that if I had only had to hear him once, that wouldn’t have been a problem. But when I realized how completely rote it was, he dropped down several pegs in my estimation of him and how much he really understood the topic.  One theory: If he knew it that well, he would not have had to so meticulously script it and rehearse it. Second theory (and the one I think is true): He did know the material, but he valued the flawless performance of the “show” higher than his personal authenticity. In his defense, because these were one-time marketing events, the sales people attending with their clients were really the ones bearing the burden for the longer term relationship. Maybe he made the right choice as a showman, but very few clients would have stood for that in someone they wanted to consider an advisor.

I think that scientists and technologists often fall into the same trap. They feel that their role as an expert compels them to be correct at all times and for their “performance” to be “flawless”.

I’m thinking that the only way someone could accomplish both goals, would be to operate well within their margins of safety, to take no bold or outrageous positions, and therefore to deny their client the very best of their thinking. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of the concept of “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi 2013 – a great TED talk) describes the phenomenon as occurring when you are performing at the very limit of your capabilities. It seems to me that that it would be very difficult to be operating at the edge, if we were afraid of straying just over the edge, and making a mistake or an overstep.

Being married to an expectation of 100% correctness makes us less willing to risk our ideas and statements being scrutinized and found to be faulty. That in turn prevents us from being fully present, fully engaged, and fully authentic. Clients expect our full engagement. Unless we have a terrible track record for making really bad mistakes, they will forgive the occasional error, because they know they are getting our best efforts and every bit of our creativity.

Said another way, we have to let go of our desire for perfection to deliver our best game and be considered real and authentic.

Experienced consultants know that the best customer relationships are often forged in the heat of resolving a missed expectation. For sure, when a mistake happens, there is a short term loss of trust and credibility.   What rebuilds, and ultimately deepens, client trust, is how the consultant owns the situation, how they react to it, and how they resolve it.  (In most cases, there is plenty of blame to go around, and the client knows it.) The client learns that regardless of who made the mistake, the consultant will do whatever it takes and bring whatever resource is necessary to resolve the issue at hand.

Three tips to becoming more authentic:

Don’t confuse being smart or “right” with being trusted.

Give your clients your very best, maybe risking a mistake or overstep, but in the process earning their trust and loyalty.

Immediately own (or gracefully share) the inevitable mistakes and resolve them without excessive focus on whose fault it is.

Epilogue:

In the words of Peter Block, “In the end, it is our authenticity, the way we manage ourselves, and our connection to our clients that is our methodology, our marketing strategy, and the fruit of our labor.” (Block 2011 )

Great Reads and Views:

Block, P. (2011 ). Flawless consulting: a guide to getting your expertise used. San Francisco, Pfeiffer, an imprint of Wiley.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2013). Creativity, Innovation & Managing “Flow”. TED talk

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)

Five steps to winning client trust by speaking your truth with power

Executive-640Recent research of buyers of high value solutions is telling us that those buyers first interact with providers quite late in their buying process, and come to the discussion already very well informed about the value proposition and basic functions and features of the solution.  (Matthew Dixon 2012)  When they do engage, they are more likely to make their buying decisions based on the credibility of the consultant or business development team, than the traditional focus on features and functions.

The implication of this trend is that the selling team’s ability to create a credible and trusting relationship with the prospect is their most powerful weapon in winning the business.  One major factor in winning that trust is the consultant’s ability to manage conflict in a way that is simultaneously authentic to the consultant’s beliefs and fully aligned to the client’s best interests.  

The two-minute video clip which follows considers how improving basic relationship and communication skills can make a critical difference creating that differentiating combination of trust and credibility.

Epilogue:

Consultants and sales teams can build this level of trust and credibility by:

  1.  Ensuring that they have complete mastery of the technology and business foundation of their solution. This has always been critical, but it is no longer sufficient by itself. (Block 2011 )
  2. Leveraging their business acumen to analyze the client’s current beliefs and current situation to craft a challenge which adds value in a unique and differentiating way.  (Matthew Dixon 2012)
  3. Assessing and developing their emotional intelligence and specifically the traits of empathy (seeing the world through their eyes and walking in their experience), emotional self-awareness (driving the personal confidence to challenge) and assertiveness (challenging in a way that is authentic, but does not alienate the client).  Take an EQ assessment and get help in developing these key attributes. (Steven J. Stein 2011)
  4. Employing strong communication (open and powerful questions and active listening skills) to establish credibility and demonstrate full alignment with the client’s needs and best interests. (Adams 2009)
  5. Creating a credible path to implementing the solution which is possible and coherent with the client’s fundamental business objectives and environmental realities. (Chip Heath 2010)

End Notes and Good Reads:

  • Adams, M. (2009). Change your questions, change your life: 10 powerful tools for life and work.
  • Block, P. (2011 ). Flawless consulting: a guide to getting your expertise used. San Francisco, Pfeiffer, an imprint of Wiley.
  • Chip Heath, D. H. (2010). Switch: how to change things when change is hard. New York, Crown Publishing Group.
  • Matthew Dixon, B. A. (2012). The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation. New York, NY, Penguin Group.
  • Steven J. Stein, H. E., Bock (2011). The EQ Edge: emotional intelligence and your success, 3rd Edition, Josey Bass.

 

The DNA of a Powerful Question

DNA_960“The processes used by a coach, a counselor, a psychotherapist or a guru are similar:  they build the awareness and responsibility of the client.”  (John Whitmore)

I was in my manager Bob’s office, and we were going toe to toe.  I don’t even remember the specific issue we were discussing, but I had very firm ideas about the direction I wanted to take, and he was being equally clear that he didn’t think my plan was a good one.  Finally, he stopped, looked me right in the eye, and asked, “How willing are you to completely own the outcome?”  And then he went silent and waited.

That moment was probably about 30 years ago. Yet I remember it in HD quality – where we were standing in his office, and the look on his face as he leveled that question at me.  It is as clear as if it was yesterday. With nine words, Bob had asked me a powerful question and was waiting for my response.

Powerful questions get their name from the idea that they evoke powerful levels of thought and produce significant clarity for the client. In that moment, Bob had let go of his strong advocacy for his approach, and just asked me how committed I was to my approach and the resulting business impact. Instead of granting permission, he was challenging me to think into the future, project the implications of my proposed path, and take full responsibility for my bet.  To use Whitmore’s language, he was asking me to rethink my proposal (awareness) and then take full responsibility for it.

Here are what I have learned to be the genetic markers of an exceptional question:

It demands thought and reflection on the part of the receiver.

The best questions don’t have easy answers. They challenge the listener to go deep into their own knowledge, beliefs, values, and emotions, to respond. When we ask a powerful question, we have given our client an opportunity to become more deeply aware of all of those elements, and to process how they interact relative to the goal.  Almost inevitably, that process sets off reflection and integration, will lead the client to make a connection they had not previously made.   We are giving our clients a huge gift.

It is built on the foundation of a solid understanding of the big picture, critical issues, and overarching sense of purpose.

The relevance and depth of your question reveals to your client that you have done your homework and have taken in all that they told you previously.  You cared enough to understand them.   You’ve built on that background to frame a relevant question whose answer will deepen your mutual understanding of the issue at hand.  Not only are you gathering information, but you are strengthening the level of trust that binds you and your client.

It is not driven by the consultant’s agenda.

Too often, we use questions which are leading, and which can be received as a form of persuasion through cross-examination.  People are amazingly perceptive in picking up loaded questions. Two negative results occur.  First, the client instinctively puts up barriers based on the level of distrust that the question engenders. The relationship between advisor and client moves in a negative direction. Secondly, the chances of having any really new or helpful insight are greatly diminished when the barriers have been thrown up.

It is short and simply framed.

Brevity comes from clarity and preparedness.  When we’re not well prepared, we are crafting the question on the fly.  The resulting question has multiple components, wanders, back tracks and is dumped on the plate in a heap.  Great coaches like to talk about effective dialogue as a dance.  With commitment, presence, understanding, curiosity and experience, we are able to sense the rhythm of the conversation and help our partner move to where the music is taking them.

Epilogue:

Give your clients the gift of clarity and commitment by asking them powerful questions.

Great Reads: 

Whitmore, J. (2002). Coaching for Performance: GROWing People, Performance, and Purpose. London, Nicholas Brealey Publishing.