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

Give up the role of expert

professor500The sales effectiveness literature is full of descriptions of the benefits of coaching for sales leaders.  In a study of 2400 sales organizations, the Sales Executive Council found that sales teams that reported three or more effective hours of coaching per month also reported 17% higher quota attainment than teams who reported two hours or less.  Coaching works!  Yet, in the same study, senior sales executives ranked the coaching ability of their sales leaders to ninth in a list of ten key sales management competencies.  One step up from dead last!  What is preventing sales leaders from doing better in this critical skill?

As I work with sales leaders, one of the most common objections to coaching that I hear, is that many of their people are very experienced, maybe in some cases, more experienced and expert than the leader themself.    Both leaders and reps often view “coaching” as knowledge transfer, or skills transfer.  “Teaching”…  Neither of them want to engage in coaching unless both feel that the coach personally has specific knowledge or skills that the coachee doesn’t have.  An opportunity for learning (by all concerned) and better selling is lost.

How do we break this “deadly embrace”?

Here are seven key ideas to make coaching relevant and powerful for both coach and coachee:

1)  Begin by rethinking the definition of coaching.  Tim Gallwey, author of the “Inner Game of Work” says it this way:  “Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching.”  There is a time to teach and a time to coach.  They are different tasks.  Use them when and where they fit.

2)  Redefine the core value that the leader-coach brings to the coaching dialogue.  Relieve the leader-coach of the responsibility to always be the subject matter “expert”.   Instead, make them responsible for being the best coach on the planet, executing  the coaching process in an excellent way.  The best athletes in the world have coaches.  Those coaches are hired for their value in terms of unleashing potential, rather than teaching a skill.  (The Gallwey book is an excellent read on this idea.)

3)  Helping the coachee develop “awareness” of the Goal, the rewards for achieving it, and the consequences of missing it.  Along the way, make sure they understand that they are the primary owner of their number.  Even though the sales manager’s attainment of their number depends on the rep attaining their goal, the coaching process should be based on the rep’s 100% ownership of their goal and 100% sense of responsibility for achieving it.  That ownership fuels their “commitment” to achieving the goal.  Coaching provides them a way to figure out how to do that.

4)  Develop a complete understanding of the current Reality, and the factors which create the gap between Goal and Reality.  Resist the temptation to begin strategy definition or action planning until the gap is very clearly defined.  This temptation is the toughest one I see sales coaches succumb to.  They go to action, once they see a connection between gap and their personal experience.  Be aware of the temptation, and hold your tongue!  Ask another question!

5)  Help the coachee create Options, a strategy for how to close the gap.  Help them think through the problem and formulate their own hypothesis for how to solve it.   Do pro’s and con’s.  Explore trade-off’s.  Don’t hand them the answer, even though the expert in you is certain you know what it is.  This is tough to do.  Hang in there!

6)  Help them develop an air-tight definition of next steps.  Be SMART, with Specific definition of task, Measure of success, confidence that the task is Achievable, Resources are clearly defined, and a specific Timeline for when this will occur.  SMART tasks facilitate accountability to the action plan, one of the key values of great coaching.

7)  When the action plan calls for teaching a critical skill that you possess….  Find the best teacher.  Maybe that’s you.  Maybe its not.  If it really is you, the sales leader, then, ok, teach it.  But teach with respect.  Ask permission to teach.  Make them seek the teaching before you force it on them.  Tough assignment:  Give them the safety and freedom to reject your offer to teach, while helping them stay accountable to their Goal.  It’s their problem.  It needs to be their solution.

Finally, as one of my coaching colleagues put it, “Don’t coach people that don’t want to be coached.”  As a manager you still have an obligation to develop your team, but if they they rebuff your help, they have made a business decision.  OK!  They own the results of their plan.  At some point, it’s best to say, “Okay, I’ll coach somewhere else.”  Like any other negotiation, the willingness to walk away always seems to strengthen your hand.  That builds your credibility.

Give up the role of expert, so that you can be free to play the role of coach.

 

Engaging with Confidence

In order to successfully challenge our customers with new ideas and insights, we have to develop the personal confidence and credibility to engage them and build their receptivity to our consulting with them.

To help us, we can draw on emotional intelligence, professional coaching concepts, and the wisdom of great leaders, such as the great Vince Lombardi.

This four minute video looks at what drives confidence and how we can prepare our teams (and ourselves!) to engage with this new model.

How do you define confidence? What do you do to give it to your teams?

Please share your ideas, and join the conversation.