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.

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.

The 5 Most Important Skills to Drive Trust and Credibility

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 3.59.01 PMWhat are the five most critical skills to earning trust and credibility with your clients?

Find out how top performing consultants are answering this question! Respond to our survey and we’ll send you the results.

The  Survey has one multiple choice question and takes less than five minutes.  Thanks!

When I talk to consulting leaders, it’s not hard to quickly reach agreement that there are a set of communications and relationship skills which make a world of difference in how well their technologists, scientists, and subject matter experts align with and communicate effectively with the individuals and organizations they are serving.

The practical problem which follows is, which of those skills will have the greatest impact? Because it is difficult and unrealistic to develop capability on 20 or so parallel fronts, it’s helpful to get a sense for which of those skills and knowledge elements are the most critical to develop in the short term, and which can be deferred to later stages of development.

In this month’s letter, I’ll discuss the work that I’ve been doing with a couple of key partners, and invite you to participate in the research which will help us answer the prioritization question.

Partners International, Discovery Consulting and Ascendent Leadership are working together to better understand the critical competencies which enable a technologist, scientist, or subject matter expert to develop into the role of valued consultant or advisor.  We want to understand how successful consultants build trust and credibility with the people they serve.

As part of our work, we have isolated 20 competencies which we believe are core to this transformation from subject matter expert to consultant.  Here they are, grouped by a high level outline of categories.  Even though we placed each of them in one category for simplicity, many or most of them could be relevant in multiple categories.

Here is our take on the four key categories and 20 discrete competencies:

Emotional Intelligence Communications
Awareness of personal emotions Customer focus and presence
Reading others’ emotions Asking powerful questions
Understanding client relationship needs Active listening
Demonstrating confidence Delivering difficult messages
Defending beliefs without being aggressive Resolving conflict
Credibility Managing Change
Executive presence Aligning with the client’s vision
Business acumen – general Identifying, validating client requirements
Business acumen – specific to client firm or industry Identifying alternative strategies, choosing the best
Asking relevant questions Identifying, managing barriers
Telling relevant stories Describing a clear path to the client vision

We believe that all of these competencies are important and could be critical in any given situation.  That said, we want to understand how consulting leaders would prioritize this list of 20 competencies to best assist their technologists, scientists, and subject matter experts in developing the communications and relationship skills they need to become true consultants and advisors to their clients.

Want to participate?  Great!  We invite you to take a short (3-5 min) survey which asks you to rank order those 20 competencies into four levels of importance to you.  We also want to hear your input on any other competencies you see as critical that we did not include in our list. We will return the survey results to you if you provide your email address when taking the survey.

Click the link below to take the survey, and thanks!

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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 first question: What do you really want? (What is compelling you to act?)

Line of ForceI was frustrated.

Over several meetings, we had come to a detailed understanding of the learning outcomes the client hoped to achieve in a series of workshops on relationship building skills.

I had been able to draw strong lines between the pains they were feeling and the workshop designs.  We had talked in depth about how the programs would improve the outcomes her sales force was achieving.

As we wrapped the last meeting, the client seemed poised to close the engagement, and just asked for some time to review the proposal with the VP of HR.

And that was the end of the road….

Several months later, despite multiple attempts to revive it, the discussion had gone cold.  The client wasn’t responding.  The opportunity was dead.  Stone. Cold. Dead.

What had I missed?

One of the gifts we give our business colleagues (note that I didn’t say “prospect”?  See note below.)  is clarity about what they want, a realistic sense of where they are, and well their current actions are working for them to close that gap.  The transition of this opportunity from live and engaged to cold and dead, made me question if we had been as clear about the opportunity, and whether the benefits were as compelling as I had thought.

Question One:  “What change do you truly want?”

“What will be different?  How will you know?  How will the firm’s position be different?  How will your stature and success be different?”  Probe around every dimension of their future vision that you can think of.  Probe around the emotions:  “How will it feel to be in this future vision?”  (See my earlier blog article around empathy and emotion.)

Question Two:  “How well is your current approach working for you?”

This simple, open question lets them tell you in their own words, what their current state is.  If you have done your homework, you already have a working hypothesis of their business issues.  This hypothesis will serve you later as you probe around their initial answer.  But what you don’t know now is the inside story, the business impact and the emotional impact on them and other key stakeholders.

Question One minus Question Two equals The Gap

That gap between desired future state and their current state and current efforts provides the business case and emotional energy (think compelling event) for what they must do to bring the change to life.  Without that emotional energy, they won’t have the courage and the will to win (or even engage) the internal battle for funding, project priority, etc.

Salesmen, beware!

When we are helping clients articulate their future vision, it is too soon to reveal the future you hope for them, and your recommended path to get there. Once you assert your value proposition and unwrap your solution, you have ended the discovery discussion.

In my situation, I began to question whether I had moved to the close too quickly.  Or perhaps I had failed to accommodate the visions of other individuals who had to agree with the need and the value proposed.

True advisors have the patience and discipline to divorce themselves from their favored outcome and path at this point in the discovery.  They must trust the client to envision the outcome that’s going to work the best for them.  Further, they must trust themselves and their solution enough to believe that, at the right time, they can describe a realistic path that will be simple and compelling.

Epilogue:

As advisors, we use questions and dialogue to help our clients develop greater clarity on both current state and future state.   By doing so, we earn their trust.  That trust gives us permission, later, to help them inform, or even challenge, their vision.  Once the vision is clear, then we can help them evaluate a number of possible paths forward, including that offered by our solution.

By framing our prospect as a colleague, more than a potential buyer of our stuff, we are less likely to trigger the emotional resistance we all have, to being sold something.

This is much easier to say, than to do.  Credibility as a colleague means that we really do understand their business – lots (probably years!) of experience and personal homework on their industry.  Hard as it is to come by, that core business acumen is at the foundation of our power as advisors.

I never said this was easy.

Reframing – Deliver Your Feedback with a Twist!

manhattan-with-a-twist_600There is a traditional Taoist story of an old farmer who owned a horse, which he used for transportation and for working his fields. His neighbors thought him quite wealthy because he owned a horse.

One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe”, the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses. He was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

At each turn of the story, the wise old farmer knew that whether the new event was good or bad depended entirely on a future context of what would happen next.

Imagine a situation where client brings you an issue or an opportunity. Through your feedback and questions, you help them pick it up, turn it over, look underneath it, look behind it, and help them develop a complete picture of the opportunity, and to gain a variety of perspectives on how best to approach it.

Great advisors do just that by assisting their clients in evaluating their existing context and envisioning new perspectives that could dramatically change how they might interpret and act on future events.

This act of helping clients conceive such a new context is called “reframing“. It literally means helping the client create a new frame of reference which will enable them to create a new set of possibilities for action. It is the ability to put a commonplace event in a new frame that is more useful, effective, or enjoyable.   Why is this so important?

Reframing can be the pivotal element in the creative process.

When an advisor incorporates reframing into a client discussion, the advisor is helping the client see their own experience and resources from a new perspective. That new language enables a new solution. That is vastly more valuable to them than being handed a solution based solely on the consultant’s experience. Because the new frame is a refinement or extension of the client’s earlier work and insight, they will be much more motivated to embrace it and implement it.

So, then, what do great advisors need to deliver a successful reframe? What might we hear to gauge our level of success?

We need the depth of experience, knowledge and insight to help them explore what different frames might exist and how the available options might be different under those new frames. “This consultant had a broad understanding of my industry, and our challenges. His questions and responses reflected that depth.”

We need self-awareness of our own frames, biases, perspectives, and favored approaches. With that clear, we need to check our biases at the door. We need the patience to engage with our client in a process of curiosity, dialogue and discovery, before we drive straight to our preferred frame.  “I did not feel this consultant was being honest with me. From the moment she walked in here, she was pushing for her solution.”

We need to be able to ask powerful questions that enable our client to see their existing frames and assess how well those frames are working for them. “She asks lots of really provocative, relevant questions.”

We need the active listening skills to reflect back what we see and we hear in a way that helps the client become aware of their own existing frames. “When he feeds back what he heard, I see my questions and ideas in a new light. His feedback always produces more thought.”

Epilogue: In his outstanding book, Clients for Life, Jagdish Sheth sums up the power of framing this way:

“Framing is the essence of synthesis. It organizes and explains complex phenomena by reducing them to a few simple dimensions. A good frame (or framework) highlights the most relevant aspects of the issue or problem shows how they interrelate and then connects to your overarching purpose or goal.”

Wouldn’t you like to give that gift to your clients?