Archive for the 'Questioning Technique' Category

Approaches for closing the deal – How to ask

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

Many consultants are uncomfortable asking for the sale.  They have a fear of rejection or say it feels pushy to ask and courteous to wait.  By waiting, what they don’t realize is that they could lose the sale! 

Asking for the sale is a consultant’s right.  You have spent time and energy crafting and presenting a solution to address a client’s need.  You have also flushed out and succinctly addressed specific client concerns.  Your question to the client, “Do you have any other questions?” is answered by the client with, ‘No.”  Now is the time to ask.

You’re on, so here are some approaches for your LAST question: 

·             Needs based: “Since you have agreed that our capabilities and approach meet your needs, can we work with you on this project? 


·             Relationship based: “Since we have worked well on past projects together, are you comfortable proceeding with us for this project?


·             Fee based: “If we drop our fees 15% do we have a deal?” 


·             Assumption based (Assumes that you are starting the project) “Can we schedule the first round of leadership interviews next week?” 


·            Next Steps: “Where do we go from here? “

After you ask for the business, you must follow these two sales rules to get a successful outcome:

1. When giving concessions, each additional concession should be smaller so that the client can see the end of the negotiation is near. 


2.      After you ask for the business be quiet and listen. Do not say a single word until the client responds – even if it feels like eternity! 

Silence can be golden!

Author:  Gary Pines   (

Ways to Start a Conversation

Monday, December 7th, 2009

Being introverted, over the years I have tried a number of tactics to minimize the pain of large networking events.  I have:

  • Arrived late to shorten the event.  This proved counterproductive, because mixing is easier if you arrive early and have a small number people talk with than if you arrive late, with the event in full swing and everyone already deeply engaged with each other.
  • Stood in a corner waiting for someone to talk with me.  A few did, but the pain between these infrequent chats was unbearable.
  • Strode purposefully from place to place, though I really had nowhere to go.  One can only do this for so long, before feeling foolish.
  • Latched onto a friend or colleague for the whole event.  This was more comfortable, but defeated the purpose of going in the first-place.
  • Wandered around looking for a men’s room other than the one closest to the meeting room.  Knowing where all of the conveniences are in a building that I never enter again has not proved particularly useful.

So eventually, I broke down and learned how to start conversations and mingle with the crowd.  It’s not so hard if you ask questions that keep other people talking.  Most people enjoy being the center of attention and will happily talk away, relieving you of the need to say much or to reveal much about yourself.  Here are some things you can ask about:

  • The event, itself. These questions put the other person in the position of being an authority, which most people like.  ExamplesHave you been coming to these meetings for long time?  Do you find them useful?  What is the mix of attendees usually like?
  • A shared experience related to the event.  Relationships are based, among other things, on shared experiences, so it doesn’t hurt to start with one.  ExamplesDid you have as much trouble finding this place as I did?  How delayed was your flight getting in last night?  Have you found a way to get within 50 feet of the bar?
  • A subject cued up by something the other person is wearing.  These cues often indicate a passion the person will be delighted to talk about.  ExamplesDo those anchors on your tie mean that you are a sailor?  What is the significance of that lapel pin?
  • Their companies, as shown on their name tags.  Eventually, you will want to talk about their companies, anyway, so why not start there?  ExamplesHow is Trigestis Pharmaceuticals weathering the current storm?  Do you know Duncan Freely or Diana Tucker in your human resources department?  Is Trigestis having as much of a struggle as other pharmaceutical companies coming up with new drugs?
  • Sports.  This is a reliable source of conversation for those who share the interest. (I choke on sports conversations.)  ExamplesHow about them Bears?  Did you see the game last night?
  • An opinion or insights about a subject already under discussion.  If you enter a small-group and find one person dominating conversation, you can draw others in with a question.  They will appreciate someone giving them a chance to break in.  ExamplesIs that true at your company, too, Martin?  Gina, how does it work at your company?  Bill, did you attend that workshop, too?

Questions like these can greatly eased attending networking events.  Asking questions not only makes the event productive for you.  It helps others have a better time, too.

Teaching Narrow Specialists How to Address a Broad Issue, Part 2

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

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.

Words You Can Use

Monday, October 27th, 2008

Your ability to ask for something and your likelihood of getting what you ask for sometimes depends on how you phrase your request. Here are wordings of requests others have found effective. The desirability of using any of these words depends on the situation and your relationship with the client. Also, words that flow naturally from one speaker aren’t necessarily suited to another. Some of these words have been provided in earlier postings and are consolidated here for your convenience.

Purpose: To keep a client talking
Words:     Tell me more.   Could you elaborate on that?  This is helpful.  Please go on.  Could you give me an example? How do you know that? I’m not sure I understand.  And, so?  Really?  Is that so?  What else?

Purpose: To ask for a meeting
Words: I do a lot of work in the [industry or function] area, so it’s my business to know people like you, and I’d like to meet you.

Purpose: To request introduction from satisfied client

Words: Could I ask you a personal favor?

Could I ask you a personal favor?  I know that you belong to [an association].  Could I come with you to the next meeting as your guest, so that I can meet the  people there?

Could I ask you a personal favor?  Peter Smith is your counterpart in the XYZ Division, isn’t he?  Could you introduce me?

Purpose: To be seated next to possible client at party
Words: I have wanted to get to know [name] for a long time.  Would you consider seating us near each other at dinner?

Purpose: To request intro to person mentioned by client
Words: That sounds like someone I should know.  Could you introduce me?

Purpose: To turn conversation to business

Words: I know you didn’t join me for lunch today in order to hear a sales pitch, but that’s actually something we could help you with, if you want to talk about it.  No pressure.

Is it okay for me to put my sales hat on for a minute?

Hey, are we ever going to do any business together?

Purpose: To request coaching from a secretary
Words: I want to use [your boss’s] time well, so perhaps you could give me a little advice. . .

Purpose: To start with agreement where there is little
Words: What has occurred hasn’t been good for either of our companies, and it’s in both our interests to get it fixed.

Purpose: To confirm that a client is ready to hire you
Words: So, where do we go from here?

Purpose: To request help without putting client on the spot
Words: Could I ask you for some advice?

Purpose: To ask for advice
Words: Could I ask for a little mentoring?

Do any of you readers have useful words or phrases that you could share?

Awkward Requests

Monday, October 20th, 2008

Sometimes we want to ask a favor, but feel awkward doing so.  Perhaps we don’t know the person well or they’ve already done a lot for us, so asking for more might seem greedy.  Whatever the reason, you don’t want to put the other person on the spot with a direct request.

Sometimes you can resolve the problem by asking indirectly.  Words you can use for this purpose include:

Can I ask you for some advice?
Could I ask you for a little mentoring?

To be asked for advice or mentoring is a compliment, the person asked being attributed superior knowledge, judgment or experience.  Also the person asked has great latitude in choosing a response.  She can spend ten minutes or an hour with you.  She can simply give you a few words to the wise or open her contact list to you.

Sometimes a contact will help beyond the expectations of the person making the request. Gabriela, an executive recruiter, ran into a former client at a conference and asked him for some mentoring on business development.  He immediately began introducing her to other people he knew at the conference, describing her work as a recruiter in ways that would have sounded immodest coming from her.

Caution!  Do not use this approach indiscriminately. If it is seen as simply a ruse to get introductions, the contact will feel you are being manipulative as opposed to tactful.  Only use these words with someone whose advice or mentoring you would legitimately value.  That way you won’t come across as false.  If all you come away with from the conversation is some good advice, you should be thankful.  After all, that is all you asked for.

Type 3 Listeners

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

One of the pleasures of professional services is the chance to meet and work with people and businesses of many kinds.  I recently had the chance to work with a group of actors turned consultants and trainers.  First, they were clients of mine and then I of theirs, so I got to see them from two perspectives. Whatever the angle, they were different . . . decidedly so.

They understood little of the technicalities of business, be it of banking or of bankruptcy.  For all they knew a POS system had something to do with batteries, an NPV might get a ticket for driving in the wrong lane on the expressway, and SOX is a baseball team.  They understood little of the economic logic or organizational design of corporations.  This meant that they would miss some simple business facts that other professionals would grasp without being told.

You might wonder how consultants could make a go of it without this basic ability.  They did it with an uncanny ability to size up another human being almost instantaneously.  When a client talked, they might miss a business issue, but they heard every nuance of tone or pitch.  They noticed every change in expression and posture.  And through these lenses they captured what the speaker was all about as a person.   In this, they were far ahead of the other professionals I work with, and, for that matter, ahead of me.  It is a powerful skill.

I am accustomed to working with Type 1 Listeners, those who listen to a client’s technical needs, and helping them become Type 2 Listeners, those who seek to learn about the client’s business needs that dictate technical changes. 

For example, I might work with civil engineers to go beyond finding ways to increase the employment count and parking on a mature site to seeing that the client needs to add personnel to rapidly increase market share and seize dominance for a new product.  I also work with Type 2 Listeners, who listen to understand a client’s business needs, helping them to become Type 3 Listeners, those who seek to understand the client as a person.

It has always progressed in that order, Type 1 to Type 2 and Type 2 to Type 3.  What am I to do with people who start out as Type 3 Listeners who must move in the opposite order?  As I figure that out, I am learning a lot.


Order your copy of Ford Harding’s new and revised edition of Rain Making, called ”…an essential guide for anyone responsible for business development in the professional services industry…” – Mark Mactas, Chairman and CEO Towers Perrin

Let Them Spend it Now

Thursday, December 13th, 2007

Whether it is by cutting costs or increasing revenues, many professionals help their clients make more money. When selling to a client, it’s a good idea to determine how much money that will be, usually through a series of questions. Once the dollar amount is estimated, a rainmaker will sometimes go one step further, letting the client visualize what she would do with that money, if she had it. Doing so will remind the client of the urgency of getting the job done, so reducing the risk of a delay in hiring you. It will also help focus the client on the value of your services rather than on some preconceived idea of what they should cost. Here are two examples of such two-stepped series of questions.

Issue: Potential Real Estate Sale

Step One: Determine the Value

Q: How many acres did he donate to the college?
A: Ninety, but a third of that is wetlands.

Q: What is it worth per acre?
A: The developable acres have been appraised at $____________, the wetlands at $____________.

Q: How many acres would you be willing to sell?
A: We want to keep fifteen developable acres adjacent to the campus and all the wetlands. We will sell the rest.

Step Two: Letting Her Spend the Money

Q: Let’s see . . . That totals to about $ __________ and if you can acquire the old Peggoty farm, giving the site access to Dunmore Road, the value could as much as double. What would the college do with that money if you had it?

A: We badly need a new chemistry lab if we are to remain competitive in the recruitment of faculty and students.

Issue: Hiring the Right Talent

Step One: Determining the Value

Q: I can think of several reasons to get this position filled quickly. Which ones are you most concerned about?

A: I’m worried that some of the other research team members might jump ship. They all get offers from our competitors all the time, and if they sense the project is in trouble, they would be more open to accepting one.
Q: How would a loss of two or three of the researchers affect the project?

A: It could delay its completion by anywhere from four months to a year.

Q: What would a delay in the project cost the company in lost revenue for each month of delay?

A: We project sales of the A30 to build quickly to $____________ a month in the first six months.

Q: How much of a delay do you feel the recruitment and integration of three new team members in addition to the lead scientist would cause?

A: That would set us back eight months at the very least.

Step Two: Letting Her Spend the Money

Q: Ouch. If that could be reduced to a two-month delay, what would the additional funds be used for?

A: We cut dividends last year and want that money to restore them to previous levels.

The Deadly Boomerang Question

Tuesday, August 7th, 2007

A former client called me to discuss the loss to a competitor of an assignment she had set her heart on winning. She had been told that the competitor was seen as a better fit with the company’s collaborative culture. “It’s not true! I know those people,” she said. The presentation had seemed to go well and she had sensed that the selection committee had been favorably impressed.
There was one awkward moment. She had been asked how updates on progress would be handled. “I told them how we do it, and one of the committee members started pushing for more frequent updates. I said we could do that, though I wasn’t sure too many more were warranted, given the amount of information that we were likely to have to pass on.” She wasn’t sure who the man was.

There are several possible missteps in this description, but what I expect hurt her most was trying to answer a boomerang question. Beware of the boomerang questions. They can cost you the sale.

A boomerang question is one the speaker asks you, hoping that you will ask the same question of him. For example, imagine you are in a sales meeting with senior people from the client organization. One of them comes from the staff of that part of the organization you work with most closely, be that the finance, human resources, information technology, legal or some other department. This person is ten years older than you and will have day-to-day responsibility for the matter you hope to help with. We will call her the engagement manager. You are describing your team, when she asks, “Typically, what is the role of the engagement manager when you work on this kind of issue?”

Answer this question at your peril! A rainmaker will immidiately bass the question back to th client. The chances are high that the prospective client doesn’t want you to answer. Instead she wants to be heard on the subject. Give the wrong answer and you will find yourself in an argument or worse have created a silent enemy who will kill your chances of winning once you are out of the room. An appropriate response is, “That depends a lot on the engagement manager. Do you have any thoughts on the subject?”

Boomerang questions are a subset of a larger group, called recognition questions, used by speakers when they want to state an opinion. Other kinds of recognition questions are much easier to identify. Often they are statements introduced with a short phrase like, “Isn’t it true that . . .” Boomerang questions are a special case, because they are so much harder to recognize.

Here are two more examples:

  1. During a discussion of how you will do the required work, someone says, “Have you ever tried . . .?” Look at the prospective client. Does his facial expression suggest that this is an inquiry or does it suggest he has something he wants to say?
  2. After meeting the president and CFO of the prospective client, the young staff members who first called and screened you by telephone, asks, “How do you think the meeting went?” You have sensed all along that he wants you to win. Does he really want your opinions about how the meeting went or does he have something to tell you and is simply being polite by starting the discussion this way.

Boomerang questions are common. You probably use them, yourself. (Honey, do you have any plans for Friday evening?) But don’t . . . don’t ever . . . confuse them with a request for information.

Asking for Referrals

Thursday, June 21st, 2007

I have been reviewing several books on selling. Most advise us to ask clients for referrals, but that’s a thing more easily said than done. There’s a lot more meaning packed into the word, “referral,” than its brevity suggests. In most areas in the professions it means we are asking our clients to remember what we do well enough that they recognize opportunities for us when they are out in the market place, refer prospective clients to us, endorse us, and inform us of things that give us an edge over competitors. That’s asking a lot of anyone.

A few people will do these things without our asking. But spontaneous giving of this type is rare. Most of the time, we do have to ask. And there’s the rub.
Asking favors of this kind makes us uncomfortable. It’s asking a lot. Our clients are busy people. They have problems of their own and are paying us for the work we do, and so owe us nothing. We don’t want to burden then with our problems. Nor do we want to seem mercenary about our relationships with them.

Succeeding at this delicate task requires good timing and technique.
Let’s start with when.

An accountant, who is one of the biggest rainmakers in his firm, was the first to explain to me the best time to ask for a referral. He advised me that whenever someone is happy with you, you are in a position to ask a favor. Yes, you are being paid for the work you are doing, but clients who are really pleased with what you have done like to do something that will help you personally, too.

A recruiter was saying the same thing, when he told me that just after a search is completed, when everyone is happy with the candidate and your contribution is fresh in their minds, is the time to ask for a referral.
Now, let’s move to how.

He Talks Too Much

Thursday, May 24th, 2007

Professional:  I was wondering if you could help me.  I’ve been told that I talk too much at sales meetings.  And I know it’s true.  I’ve tried to stop, but I always seem to be the one who’s doing most the talking?  Is this the kind of thing you can help with?

Coach:  Tell me more.

Professional:  Well, I always go into a sales meeting with the best intentions, but somehow I always end up talking and the prospective client ends up asking the questions.  I don’t know how it happens.  I feel I have to answer his questions and that means I have to talk.  I’ve been doing this work for many years, so I can size up most issues that a client is concerned about pretty quick.  That’s a part of the problem.  In some ways I know their problems better than they do, I’ve seen them so many times before.

Coach:  Can you give me an example?

Professional:  Sure.  Last week I met with an old client.  I asked him if he might need our help over the next few months, and he mentioned an issue his department was struggling with and asked if we had ever done any work in that area.  I only knew about one matter of that kind that we had ever worked on, so I described it. I could tell I had scored some points, because his level of interest picked up a lot, and before I knew it the hour was up, and I had done all the talking, and it was time for me to go.  He acted as if he was ready to hire us.

Coach:  Really?

Professional:  Oh yes.  We even talked about getting started next week.  He wants the work done fast, and he was particularly interested in how we had delivered on such a tight schedule for the other client. That hour went by in a blink. He was so interested in the example I gave, I thought for sure we had won.  But I was wrong.  He called this morning and told me he had hired someone else.  When I asked him why, he said that the other firm understood their problem better. It’s the third time in two months that I’ve had my head handed to me this way.  Have you seen this kind of problem before?

Coach:  Yes, but I have a few more questions.  Can you elaborate on what happened during the first part of the meeting?

Professional:  You mean right from the beginning? . . . .  Let’s see. . . . He met me in the lobby and we went into a small conference room.  I asked how things were going, and he talked for a bit.  I don’t remember exactly what he said.  But somehow he brought up their new operation in Minnesota.  That’s when he asked if we had done anything similar.  I guess that’s when I started talking.  But I’m not sure what choice I had.

Coach:  You sound pretty frustrated.

Professional:  I sure am.  I just don’t see how I can avoid talking so much.  I mean, when a prospective client asks you a question, you have to answer him, don’t you?

Coach:  What else?

Professional:  I’ve sometimes been criticized for talking too fast, too.  I always . . .  

*  *  *  *  *

In a sales meeting do you act more like the professional in the preceding dialog or like the coach?  There are many short phrases that will keep a client talking:

Tell me more
Can you give me an example?
Can you elaborate?
You sound frustrated or That can’t be easy
What else?
I’m not sure I understand
And then?
And so?