June 3, 2020 11:55
Freelance Consultant's Guide to Best Client Discovery Questions
What questions do freelancers ask during consulting interview with customers?
The work of a consultant is much the same as that of a doctor.
You come into the doctor's office without knowing what you have, and he, through a set of selected questions, begins to understand more about what brings you there. Eventually, he will bridge your symptoms and the underlying causes, and finally diagnose your condition. He then tries to corroborate this diagnosis by taking multiple objective measures that allow him to invalidate or affirm his hypotheses. Now, sure of himself, and based on the fact that he has experienced this situation many times before, he prescribes you the best remedy.
Let us now imagine a radically different situation.
You sit in the patient's chair as usual. Without saying a word, your doctor puts his dark glasses on the tip of his nose. You can't see his eyes through the smoked glass. He moves both hands towards you, closed but palms up to the sky. He then gently opens each of them. In one hand is a blue pill. In the second, a red pill. (A familiar scene? Any resemblance to real or actual people is purely intentional). He then distinctly pronounces, "This is what you need. Each one of them will allow you to heal ".
How would you feel then?
Would you have complete confidence in this cure?
Would you be willing to blindly follow your doctor's recommendations whereas he hasn't asked a single question since your arrival?
Of course not. And it’s the same with business. Voltaire, the French philosopher, used to say that we have to judge a man by his questions, rather than his answers.
But asking the right questions is a difficult art to master.
We must use the right words, the appropriate tone of voice, and create an adequate context to get our prospect to reveal himself. We need to make sure that we say what we have in our mind, that our consulting lead understands what we're saying to him, and that our consulting client provides us with the right information, without any bias or any distortion of reality.
And one of the first issues a consultant faces is that customers really don’t know what they don’t know. Clear, huh? In fact, your prospects don’t have a clue if they have a big issue or a small problem in front of them. Either they’re dealing with a small headache or with flu. And this is our job as an advisor to evaluate the magnitude of the problem, and that the person you're talking to can become aware of it.
One part of consultants doesn’t know how to start and how to follow-up after the first question. They’ve too many questions in mind, are afraid to forget something, and finally get confused. The key is for you to follow a rigorous process, to always working with a script and take notes.
And the other part of consultants believes they know how and what to ask to their prospects, making serious mistakes along the way.
1. Diligently Prepare The Consulting Customer Interview
An interview is first synonymous of preparation. A lot of preparative work. During my coaching sessions, I’ve seen many consultants going to the prospect company without any idea which questions they’re going to ask or relevant information about their prospect.
Since 80% of the sale's closing depends on the questions you’re going to ask, it’s not necessary to remind you there's a lot at stake here. If you don’t have the time to prepare yourself properly, postpone your meeting until you’re ready.
In consulting, there is no place for amateurs.
Start checking articles, websites, and all available information about your prospect. Making so, it will prevent you from asking the wrong questions and pass for someone who doesn't belong to this place.
As far as I’m concerned, the worst consulting question I have heard so far is:
“Tell me a little bit about your organization. How would you describe it to someone that knows nothing about it?”
This question is a total lack of respect for your interlocutors. It means you didn’t take the time to check by yourself what do they offer, their values, how they communicate, and the current status of their company in terms of employee, turnover, international locations, and other valuable information. Today, with the spread of media, account disclosures, CEO messaging and social media publications, you no longer have any excuse to be so indifferent and uninvolved. Information is easy to find.
In fact, beyond looking like an amateur, you won't be able to write down the essential things to ask during the interview: the ones you don't understand. Because it is only through a deep understanding of our client and his situation that any consulting activity begins.
What don’t you understand about their strategy, clients, and business model?
Is there anything that feels like strange, out of place, or irrelevant?
Consulting customer always appreciates that someone has inquired about him and welcomes questions of substance. You will never look like a fool by asking a question on a point you don't understand, but rather as someone who is curious and interested in others. The desire to understand is rooted in men and surpasses everything.
“ALL men by nature desire to know. The animals other than man live by appearances and memories and have but little of connected experience; but the human race lives also by art and reasonings” Metaphysics - Aristotle
But preparation gives also you the clues to evaluate the fit of this prospect as an ideal customer for your consulting services.
Do you think their values and yours are aligned?
Do you feel you are going to need to adapt your traditional way of communicating?
2. Getting To Know Each Other: Creating The Doctor-Patient Relationship
The first question you’re going to ask to start the interview is simply the right to ask a question. It seems trivial, I know. But if you want to create a climate favorable to confidences, while avoiding being perceived as an inquisitor, you need to ask permission.
"Let me just ask you a few quick questions, so I can better understand your current situation."
"Would you agree that I ask you a series of questions to make sure that..."
"Do you mind letting me have a clear idea of what really matters to you..."
"Would you allow me to take a few minutes to ask you..."
At this stage, you don’t want to jump out directly to the issue. It's true that sometimes your doctor is in a hurry and goes straight to the point, but it did never occurred during the first meeting. If you can remember this first encounter, you will remember how your doctor took the time to write down all the details about you, your age, address, work situation, medical history, and potential allergies. This not only gave him valuable information (a basis for his future work) but also allowed him to form a bond with a stranger. Those who live in Asia or do business with Asia know that building person-to-person relationships is the key to doing business. This is true in every country in the world, but the scale is not the same.
Interesting questions are the ones related to the essence of any business: strategic positioning, competition, and customers.
What does your business do that no one else can?
What makes you different from everyone else?
What is unique about your business compared to your competitors?
How do you differ from your competitors?
How are your prospects in relation to your services?
Who isn’t a competitor now but could be in the future?
Do you have established buyer personas for each of your market segments?
3. “Tell Me Where It Hurts”: Discover Where The Customer Pain Lies
Your prospect is living with a certain situation but at the moment he doesn’t know if he’s going to take action and make something to change it.
How many times, doctors see patients with tissue necrosis or other bad injuries that could be avoided if the patient came earlier to the office? Patients like customers may think that the situation can be solved by itself with time. Often, consultants discover that they intervene too late to help their client who has been in a desperate situation for too long. Consultants don't perform miracles, they leave them to God.
The best professionals will not recommend a solution without first confirming that the customer is actually experiencing the consequences of the problem that it is meant to solve. Sometimes prospects are in denial or, and this is most of the cases, they’re not really aware of their own situation. No judgment here, we’re all the same. When we’re deeply involved in something that required our full attention, we’re not taking sufficient steps back to see the big picture.
Once you have established the connection with your prospect, the following process is to ask questions from the less invasive to the more invasive ones, building trust and going deeper into the understanding of the issue.
The technique is referred to as the onion peeling, working layer by layer.
The following questions are pretty effective. Your interlocutor will start speaking about its new or current subject of interest and concern.
What top priority is your company working on?
What’s the top challenge you’re facing?
What is the major opportunity you’re focused on right now?
What are the most important decisions your company is taking at the moment?
And the best way to demonstrate that you are an expert is to create a status alignment and share valuable information about the market in which your prospect operates.
I have found that many companies in your market are facing X,
Are you facing this issue too, or do you have a bigger problem in mind?
4. “Tell Me How It Hurts”: Uncover observable and quantifiable symptoms
To convince people working with you you need to figure the impacts of the current situation or the pain of non-acting. In fact, you need to evaluate the effects and consequences on costs, keeping in mind that costs can be either :
- direct, and well known,
- indirect, impacting other departments, other aspects but maybe only estimated
- or lost opportunities, options that prospects can’t consider due to the resources consumed by the current issue.
Of course, costs can be ramified in time, bottleneck, quality, productivity, and different aspects, but it’s your job to translate them into costs. If the productivity level decrease, how many products can’t be sold this month? If the quality of the provided services decrease, how many contracts are not going to be renewed? If more people need to be trained to this specific machine, how much time they spend on if and how much does it cost to the company? And so on. You get the idea.
And how much does it impact your output?
What does this mean in terms of costs?
How much production loss has this led to?
And how badly is the quality affected?
And how many months of delay this issue represent?
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