Inarticulate ramblings of a management consultant

the day to day experiences of a consultant operating in weird and wonderful client situations

Selling by asking questions!

I wasn’t born to be a consultant…who is?  If any of you had met me as a child, you probably wouldn’t have noticed! My family background was extremely conservative, the attitude of ‘not speaking unless spoken to’ still prevailed to some extent and there was little opportunity to learn how to speak…you know, practice what worked and what didn’t work in an adult world. Like many kids, I was quiet, extremely shy, found it difficult to make eye contact and the concept that anyone would be interested in me was a complete anathema. Even as I got older and starting playing music in front of an audience, any sort of applause used to make me cringe!

So for me, the way to get around the embarrassment of having to respond to other peoples questions was to ask lots of questions myself…avoiding the attention by diverting it away from me. That way I could have a conversation and be polite, learn something but not go red (!)…it worked brilliantly.

And ever since, I’ve probably spent more than half my working life asking questions…random, personal, focused, open, closed, directional, lateral, rhetorical, factual, opinion / hypothesis based, the list is endless. I’ve gone through entire meetings and sales pitches without making a single statement about our capability / our methodology / our skill set. We might use some of the answers to explain how we’ve dealt with certain similar situations and often the questions themselves are designed to generate this opportunity…but there is no set piece moment.

Does it work? As you might expect, the answer is ‘yes and no’! The appreciative enquiry nature of the process almost always leads to greater clarity for the client which is very helpful, sometimes to the extent that the need for help disappears, which is not so helpful for me or my colleagues! However, beyond the fact that I personally find it harder to operate the other way, it tends to generate goodwill in my prospective clients…they feel that I’m interested in them both personally and from a business perspective and that generates some initial trust.

And the other benefit? Well if you’ve prepared yourself for the meeting by developing a long list of questions, you’ve also prepared yourself to respond to lots of questions. I suspect that the majority of buying decisions (beyond brand..although that is slowly disappearing as buyers are getting braver) are made from the dialogue and not the presentation. Dealing with that aspect of the pitch effectively will undoubtedly have a positive impact on conversion.

When I was a search consultant, I used to say to my candidates that they had to do enough research to fill the first 5-10 minutes of the interview with questions…only then would they move themselves above the competition. Surprisingly perhaps, that process is still the cornerstone of my engagement these days.

Categories: Consulting

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