Professionals who have developed skill at selling work in their areas of expertise, often find it hard to sell a broad solution to a problem that extends into areas about which they know relatively little. Yet, rainmakers do this all of the time. In an earlier post, I described a change in mindset needed to become an adviser on broad sets of issues. Clearly, a change in mindset is not sufficient. The professional must learn to conduct a discussion about a broad business issue. Used to having command of a subject, they often say that they don’t know what to say and ask about issues where they have limited expertise. It is a legitimate concern.
When talking with a client in their areas of specialty, professionals ask relatively narrow questions. Borrowing from Chomskian linguistics, I will call these surface questions. The surface questions used to learn about a client’s desire to redesign her company’s pension program differ greatly from those required to learn about her need for a new headquarters or her need to make a merger or for any other specific problem.
However, regardless of the issue, surface questions in all specialties gather information in the same categories, such as information about the nature of the client’s issue, its source, its size, its complexity, its urgency, its risks and opportunities, and so forth. With that understanding, it is relatively easy to construct questions, which I will refer to as deep questions, that are more generic in nature and that will allow a professional to converse with the client in areas that go beyond the professional’s area of detailed knowledge.
Here is a comparison of some surface questions with some deep ones. For the surface questions I will assume that a location consultant is interviewing a client about moving its corporate headquarters. The deep questions, of course, can handle a much broader set of issues. Note that these are just sample questions, not a definitive list. Also, keep in mind that the same question can be worded many ways. For example, Why would that be a problem for you? is essentially the same question as I can think of several reason why that would be a problem. Which ones stand out to you? I have chosen brief versions of most questions to make a point. If you don’t like the specific words shown, see if you can reword the questions to make them more palatable.
To determine the nature of the problem:
- Surface Questions: Why are you thinking of moving your corporate headquarters? What kinds of talent are difficult to recruit at this location? Why is being in a peripheral location problematic?
- Deep Questions: What is it that you wanted to talk about? What seems to be the issue?
To establish cause:
- Surface Question: Why are you thinking of moving now?
- Deep Question: How did the problem arise/develop?
To establish urgency:
- Surface Questions: How soon does your lease expire? If you continue to fall short in the number of researchers you recruit, how soon do you end up in competitive difficulties?
- Deep Questions: What kind of time pressure are you under? Why the rush?
To establish goals:
- Surface Question: What do you want to accomplish from a move?
- Deep Question: What does success look like?
Top establish size:
- Surface Questions: How many people are based at the headquarters? How do they break down by job type? How many would you expect to move? How many square feet do you occupy? Do you expect space requirements to go up or down?
- Deep Questions: How big is this issue? How many people does it affect?
To establish scope:
- Surface Questions: Is the current location under consideration or are you definitely going to move? Would you consider a long distance or only a local move? Are there certain other locations that must be considered?
- Deep Questions: What are its parameters? What areas will be affected? How broad a set of solutions are you willing to consider?
To establish risks:
- Surface Question: What happens if word of the move leaks out prematurely? What if insufficient members of the research team choose to transfer to the new location? Are you subject to political pressures in making this choice?
- Deep Questions: What are the risks? What could go wrong?
To establish opportunities:
- Surface Questions: If you move to a new location and your recruiting problem goes away, what difference will it make? How would easier access to your customers help the business?
- Deep Questions: What are the benefits of making the change? How much would you gain from the change.
To establish barriers:
- Surface Questions: Why are you considering staying put? Why not explore alternatives directly with economic development authorities instead of working through a consultant?
- Deep Questions: What stands in your way? Why are you considering doing this with external resources, rather than in house?
I could go on, but suspect the point is made. Professionals who are used to showing off expertise in the questions they ask, sometimes fear deep questions are too general and so highlight their lack of content knowledge. But clients almost always answer deep questions without hesitation. When they are focused on talking about their problem, information that draws attention to the professional can be a distraction, even if that information is posed as a question.