Yesterday I debriefed a client who had lost out to a competitor on the chance to work for a prestigious client. When the client gave him the bad news, she said that his presentation didn’t seem as attuned to her company’s needs as the competitor’s. Specifically, he had said almost nothing about what she considered a major issue. I asked how he had made such a mistake, and he responded that he knew a lot about the industry in question and thought the client was misreading the issue’s importance. It was clear that he hadn’t asked a critical question: What are the major issues you expect to face in getting this problem resolved?
When professionals fail to ask a prospective client for all of the information they need, they plead two reasons. First, they don’t want to seem naïve. As professionals, they feel they should know so much about the kinds of problems their clients face that asking for details risks identifying themselves as amateurs. An organizational design consultant may be reluctant to ask an executive what he wants to accomplish from succession planning. A mergers and acquisitions attorney declines to ask why his client wants to acquire another company. An architect hesitates to ask why her client needs the new building she is being asked to design. An executive recruiter doesn’t ask a prospective client what he hopes to accomplish by creating a new position for a Chief Risk Officer. All feel that they should know the answers to these questions.
But, knowing the client’s views on issues like these is critical to the success of the service. Unless you know exactly why the client wants something done and what she expects to accomplish, how can you be sure your goals will be aligned with hers? This is not something to be left to chance. And think about it: isn’t it presumptuous to assume that you know what a prospective client will say? Sometimes the answers you get back from seemingly obvious questions amaze you. Even if you accurately predicted the general message, the information and nuances within which that message is wrapped may be important to hear.
Still, if you are to win the client’s confidence, you must not come across as naïve. One solution is to ask your question in a way that doesn’t sound naïve. This is a matter of how rather than whether. “I can think of several reasons why succession planning is critical to this firm. Which ones stand out to you?” “How do your reasons for making this acquisition differ from those in the past?” “Your old laboratory is substantially out of date. Are there any additional reasons you want a new one?” Questions like these will get you the information you need without coming across as a neophyte. It is a matter of how you ask rather than what you ask.
The second reason that professionals fail to ask key questions is that they don’t want to seem insensitive and intrusive. “Is your job on the line here?” “Is your boss really so difficult to work for?” We are naturally uncomfortable asking such questions of people we don’t know well. But, once again, the answers may be important to learning what defines success for the client and have implications on how we do our work. But you must not come across as insensitive or intrusive.
Once again, it often is an issue of how you ask. In these cases a broad and less direct probe allows the client to choose how open she wants to be with you. “This situation creates a lot of pressure. What’s at stake for the participants?” “How important is managing your boss’s expectations to a successful outcome? What is his operating style?”
So if in doubt about whether you should ask a question, reframe the issue. Ask yourself how you should word the question. Then make sure to ask it.