Trust Matters, The Podcast: How to Present Choices to Clients (Episode 7)

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Tell Your Client Why They Don’t Need You

Sell to a friend? Or not?

No, I’m not crazy. (Well, not because of that headline, anyway). It’s actually a serious admonition. Here’s why, and how.

———————-

I suspect you want your clients to trust you. And I’m sure you tell them the truth about why they should buy from you.

We all would like to think that’s enough for them to trust you, but of course it’s not. Oddly, what’s missing is some context that contrasts the positive reasons to buy from you with some objective truths about why they might not need you.

Consider these two sentences:

1. If you’re serious about wealth management, then you should consider whole life insurance as part of your portfolio.

2. If you distinctly need insurance coverage in addition to an investment product, then you should consider whole life insurance as part of your portfolio.

The first sentence is a form of manipulative selling – like the assumptive close (“OK, shall we start on Monday or on Wednesday?”), or inducing a series of ‘yes’ answers (“Now, I assume you want your children to be taken care of, right?”). The way it’s written, you can’t disagree without being disagreeable.

Most people get annoyed when asked a question to which there’s only one reasonable answer. And most of us consider being asked that question a reason not to buy from the asker. So – don’t do that.

Instead, ask a question that allows reasonable people to consider reasonable multiple possibilities – including saying no to some of them.

Ask Questions that Allow Buyers to Self-Select

The second sentence does that. It provides information by distinguishing between people who might find value in the product and those who might not. Phrased that way, it not only educates the customer, it allows the customer to make a decision to opt-in or opt-out. Another way to put that: it posits a real-world choice, for real people in the real world who must make choices.

Most salespeople get nervous about questions that allow clients to opt out. Not, however, salespeople who understand the power of trust.

By giving a customer knowledge that permits opting out, a salesperson is putting herself at risk. But without risk in the first place, there can be no genuine trust – only control and the illusion of choice.

The reason trust works in sales is because human beings reciprocate when they are trusted. They appreciate being treated as adults, they appreciate not being manipulated and they appreciate being given choices that help them make intelligent decisions.

And they show their appreciation by buying, disproportionately, from those who treat them that way.

Let your clients know why they might not need you. Trust them to make the right choice. Amazingly, they do so more often than not.

Trust-based Selling, Redux ca 2018

copyright Nate Osborne 2013Over a decade ago, I wrote Trust-based Selling.

As I said in the opening paragraph, “You don’t often hear those two words mentioned in the same sentence.” What that book was about was squaring the circle – explaining the apparent paradox of how you can sell and be trusted at the same time. I believe it is even more relevant today than when the book was published.

The Paradox

“Selling” is a critical concept at the core of capitalism. It’s often said that if you don’t have a sale, you don’t have a business. If you can’t sell your product or service, the market is democratically expressing itself that you have nothing of worth. Conversely, to successfully sell is in some way a validation of value.

At the same time, “selling” is at the heart of Adam Smith’s description of capitalism as based on the invisible hand of self-interest. If everyone behaves selfishly, you might say, everyone benefits from the competitive system that results.

And yet if anything seems inimical to trust, it must be selfishness. The prevailing theory of capitalism is that you may trust the system, but caveat emptor – buyer beware. We have regulations to prevent the abuse of buyers by sellers, not trusting the motives of sellers alone.

How then can we trust someone whose job, indeed whose core motivation, is to extract money from our wallet and transfer it to theirs – all the while smiling and telling us to enjoy it?

And from the seller’s side: how can you be trusted, trustworthy, when your entire job is based on getting people to do something that is first and foremost in your interest? There’s even an ethical dimension: how can you live with yourself when your job consists fundamentally of getting people to behave in ways that inure to your benefit?

It’s a paradox. Unless you think about trust.

The Problem

But first: what’s changed since I wrote the book? I’d say three things: data, process, and the internet. Or if you want to put an over-simplified big fat label on it, let’s say Salesforce.

Let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong per se about Salesforce, and there’s a ton of value in it. If you’re not using Salesforce or a similar tool, you’re in the Dark Ages.

Nonetheless: Salesforce and its CRM ilk have enabled some negative and regressive tendencies in those who wish to sell. In particular:

  • They can depersonalize sales. I don’t just mean spending time on the screen instead of talking to people: I mean the belief that you can reduce all relevant human interactions to datapoints, and by collecting and analyzing them per se, gain better relationships. The power of the tool seduces people into thinking that by collecting indicators, we have gained that which the indicators sought to indicate. To paraphrase Kierkegaard: CRM systems are like a “for sale” sign in a store: you go in to buy, and find out it was only the sign that was for sale.
  • They focus overly on the sales process. Sure, you can describe ‘sales’ as a process. You can also describe it as a noun, a relationship, a transaction, a profession, and many more things. To focus solely on process is to think of sales as a linear, logical, deductive kind of phenomenon. Sales is much more than that. Yet every sales model you can think of begins with finding a lead, and ends (in a left-to-right depiction) in ‘closing.’ It is by its nature seller-centric – not customer-centric. It’s often noted that the percentage of person-to-person time has declined in recent years: we forget that this means the relative importance of that time is increased – not decreased.
  • Their overt purpose, goal, objective is to get the sale – and then get more sales. They concretely embody the self-interest that Smith spoke about – and don’t mention the ‘greater good’ that he meant by the “invisible hand.”

The convergence of data, process and the internet represented in modern CRM systems promotes an impersonal, process-oriented, seller-centric view of sales. Just as social media have turned out to be Trojan horses weaponizing some of our worst instincts while wrapped in undeniably valuable forms, so has CRM handed salespeople a double-edged sword.

Squaring the Circle

The good news is: it doesn’t have to be that way. And you don’t have to get rid of your CRM systems either. All you need is a few changed behaviors – and some fundamental shifts in mindset and belief systems. Paradoxically, making these changes will actually result in more sales, not less. But only if you embrace the paradox.

Here are a few of those changes:

  • The goal of most selling is to make the sale. The goal of trust-based selling is to help the customer; a sale is an outcome, not a goal.
  • “Closing” is anathema – that’s all about the seller. The joint agreement to do a transaction that benefits the buyer is what we should seek.
  • In trust-based selling, the right time to mention price is when it is useful to the customer to know it.
  • In trust-based selling, you don’t “handle objections” – you jointly explore the fit of the solution.
  • In trust-based selling, hard-sell is not a sin – wrong-sell is.
  • In trust-based selling, you don’t seek sales – you seek good decisions by the buyer (if this is your priority, you’ll actually get more than your share of such decisions).
  • In trust-based selling, the acid test is whether you’d be willing to refer the customer to a competitor – if the competitor has the better solution.
  • In trust-based selling, a sale transaction is just one event along the path of a relationship.
  • In trust-based selling, the default mode of presentation is transparency.
  • If everyone sold based on trust, we’d need fewer regulations, and Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand would be a lot more efficient.
  • In trust-based selling, the time-frame is lifetime. Assume that you will meet this customer again, along with his or her customers, cousins, bosses and LinkedIn friends, and that every interaction is evident to all of them instantly. That’s your reputation.

Trust-based selling relies on the proposition that people return good for good, and bad for bad. If you treat a customer respectfully and with trust, and they happen to need what you are selling, the natural response is to buy it from you. And if they don’t presently need what you’re selling, guess who they’ll remember and come back to when they do need it.

You can bet on it. And you should.

That proposition is not only an ethical template – it is a business model.

 

Trust Matters, The Podcast: Stepping Up To The C-Suite Client (Episode 4)

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Seduced by Tools and Processes

One of my favorite newsletters comes on Sunday mornings from Andy Paul. It’s called The Weekly Sales Fix. (He also does a great weekly podcast). While he focuses mostly on large B2B sellers, his thoughts this week mirror what I’ve also been seeing in smaller B2C marketers. 

The overall thought is an over-reliance on tools and processes.

First, Andy’s take on it:

I’ve been in sales for 4 decades….

We’ve all read about the various research findings that paint a dismal picture of the state of B2B sales. 

Low quota attainment rates. Falling close rates. Increased ‘No Decision’ rates. Buyers saying they find no value in their interactions with sales reps.

However, I believe that the fundamental reason these problems exist is that we have taken our eyes off the ball.

Too many in sales are trying to substitute process, methodology and technology for the fundamental and irreplaceable human connections that are at the heart of the B2B sales transaction.

The true science of selling is not about metrics. It’s about the science of mastering the human to human interaction.

Unfortunately, sales people today aren’t being sufficiently educated about the human element of sales.

The more time I spend in sales, and the more time I invest in working to help other sales people, the more clearly I’ve come to see that the keys to success at any level in our profession are directly tied to mastering a small handful of basic human behaviors.

Be human.

Ask great questions.

Listen slowly.

Deliver value.

You can make it more complicated than this. But, why would you?

Because, no matter what sales process, technology or methodology you utilize, your ability to win ultimately boils down to mastering those four behaviors to build functional and effective relationships with your buyers.

Simplicity.

Well said, Andy. Now let me apply those same thoughts to what I’ve been seeing on the smaller business side. 

I get (and I bet many of you do too) a lot of emails and LinkedIn requests that completely ignore Andy’s advice. 

  • Someone sends me a LinkedIn request; they look interesting, so I accept. Within hours, I get a message telling me about their services and suggesting a call or a meeting.
  • Someone sends me an email – it says a bit about their services, but absolutely nothing about me or my business, much less why I might be interested. Worse, they assert that they’re relevant and can help me. Worse still, they suggest a call or a meeting to explore how they can help me.

The Seductiveness of Tools and Processes

On the B2B side, the sheer power and connectedness of today’s CRM-and-related systems is impressive. As with all tech, things are getting digitized and interconnected. You can track and link to virtually unlimited amounts of things, including your own (automated) ‘content’ and customers’ responses.

The seduction is this: the belief that Because You Can, Therefore You Should. 

  • On the B2B side, because you can micro-identify potential buyers, their past behaviors, their likely interests, and monitor their reactions to anything you might put out, therefore you should do all the above. 

No, you shouldn’t. Because as Andy Paul points out, the approach touches precisely zero of the four factors Andy calls “keys to success.”

  • On the smaller business side, the seduction is that because you can easily invite me to join you on LinkedIn or ID me on a targeted mailing list and send me the equivalent of your brochure at zero cost, therefore you should do all the above. 

No, you shouldn’t. Because if your response to an invitation acceptance is to send me a pitch, you’re committing the business equivalent of asking for sex on the first date. It’s just not done. It’s rude. 

Worse, it pretty much doesn’t even work. The law of large numbers won’t help you.  If your strategy was to micro-target desirable buyers with all your great screening tools, then offensiveness actually backfires on you: not only is the potential market smaller, but your bad reputation spreads more thoroughly.      

Whether you’ve been seduced by processes or by tools, you are 

a. Not being human

b. Not asking great (any?) questions

c. Not listening slowly (if at all)

d. Not delivering value 

With great tech comes great temptation: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. As Andy says, keep it simple, and keep it human.

Trust Matters, The Podcast: Getting Through Procurement (Episode 3)

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The Limits of Value Propositions

In sales, especially B2B sales, having a clearly developed and clearly stated value proposition is unquestionably important. This is especially true for large, complex, or intangible offerings.

In fact, some experts go so far as to suggest a value proposition is the key component of successful sales. And most would say that a value proposition is at least a necessary condition for success, if not a sufficient one.

But this is certainly to overstate the value of value propositions. Not only are they not sufficient – sometimes they’re not even necessary. They are frequently less important than classic issues of needs and wants. And discussing value propositions without overtly addressing client confidence in the capability of the seller is not useful.

Value propositions are unquestionably powerful. But if you think nailing down a clear value proposition is going to solve your sales issues, you need to think again.

Thinking about Value

First, let’s set some definitions. I’m using “value” in a simple, narrow way to mean economic value. For example, I might offer a client a value proposition that says, “By using a distinctive approach to account development, I can improve top-line revenue by 10% within six months at virtually no cost to margins.” The “value” in that example is “10% of full-margin top-line revenue,” and the total statement includes reference to how I’m going to achieve it and in what realm of the client’s business.

But usually that’s not how clients start out thinking. In my experience, clients go rather quickly from “we’ve got a revenue problem” to “the biggest reason for our revenue problem is sales force turnover,” from whence it’s a quick hop to “we need a salesforce recruiting solution.” In which case, my highly articulated value proposition about the account development process, even if it’s correct and relevant, doesn’t even get invited to the party.

Their problem (“10% top-line revenue gap”) may rhyme with your value offering (10% top-line revenue growth”), but if the buyer is fixated on sales force turnover, game over. You could argue you need to present your value proposition earlier in the buying cycle, but that’s a problem outside the value proposition per se. Call that the “misaligned diagnosis” problem.

Another problem is relative lack of urgency. A 10% increase in top-line growth, while it sounds great, may produce yawns in organizations that are transfixed by products going off patent, or by R&D rejuvenation, or by M&A activity, or by the urgency of a cost-cutting drive.

A value proposition can work its magic only if the client (a) agrees on the issue at hand, (b) feels a need to address the issue, and (c) wants to use the particular value proposition to address the need.

That is not a radical statement. (The value of a glass of water in the desert is greater than when lakeside.) And yet it is violated all the time. Salespeople keen on articulating value propositions to clients risk making the world look like a nail to match their value proposition hammer. We know better than to sell product vs. solution, but it’s so tempting when the “product” is disguised as a total value proposition.

Note: this can work in sellers’ favor. Over half my clients already see what they want in my offerings by the time they contact me. They articulate my value proposition for themselves. And unless they’ve gotten it quite wrong (not very common), there’s little point in forcing them to tweak it. At that point, the imperative to add value as the opportunity presents itself becomes the key task.

Selling Value and Buying Value

Suppose you haven’t productized the value proposition. You’re engaged in a constructive dialogue with an interested client. You’ve articulated your value proposition, they comprehend it, and it meets their needs. However, the same can be said for two competitors, each of whom is also talking to your potential client about increasing top-line revenue by changing the account development process.

Several issues then arise, such as the level of detail. (Just how does your approach to changing the account development process differ from theirs?) You could call this a deeper level of value proposition, but below some level it starts to look like just product variations.

But the biggest issue for buyers at this point is often not the value proposition at all, but the confidence or trust the buyer has in the seller. Confidence and trust can not only overcompensate for lower stated value, but they can overturn the value proposition entirely.

Expected Value

Consider two firms competing for a bid, with general agreement on the value proposition that the client is looking for. Let’s say the economic value calculated by each firm is about net $5 million. Sophisticated decision analytics might reveal the client has 90% confidence that firm A will deliver fully on the expected value, but only a 75% level of confidence that Firm B will do so.

That’s 15 percentage points variation in expected value—the same as if one firm had quoted a value of $750,000 more than the other! It’s also a discrepancy often sufficient to entirely wipe out the fees difference between the two sellers. Even greater discrepancies emerge when the issues turn to, “what if things go wrong? What will they be like to work with then?”

Yet this discrepancy virtually never gets talked about—at least not in a direct and quantitative way. The discussions are more along the lines of, “I don’t know. I just don’t feel like when push comes to shove they’re going to be able to get with our program.”

If you lose a bid and are lucky enough to get some post-bid debriefing, you’re not likely to hear, “Well, we just didn’t feel like when the chips were down you’d be able to get with our program.” That would be the corporate version of politically incorrect speech.

Instead, you will hear, “The other guys had a more compelling set of resumes on their team, ” or “We just felt like we had to go with their longer track record in this area.” In other words, the language of value proposition gets cited as post hoc justification even though it was not the basis for the actual decision. More prosaically, people buy with their heart and rationalize it with their brains.

Trust Can Even Overturn a Value Proposition

I’ve been on both ends of this one. I won a job by telling the client they flatly didn’t need to do a significant part of the job they were requesting. I didn’t win because I came up with a better value proposition; I won because I showed I could figure out the right thing to do. And the proof of it was they didn’t bother to solicit other bids around the new value proposition.

Sadly for me, I’ve lost this way, too. It’s not about picking the right game, it’s about picking the person who knows how to pick the right game.

The Role of the Value Proposition

Too often it’s assumed that the purpose of the value proposition is so obvious it doesn’t need stating. Doh! We assume clients buy value, clearly expressed, and tightly calculated. After all, that’s what they say they do.

There are seriously valuable roles for a value proposition, of course. They are:

  • To force the seller to have a Point of View: my client may or may not buy what I’m selling, but my statement of it marks a beginning point of discussion, a coherent account—one that suggests other ideas, proves I’ve thought things through, and shows I am worthy of valuable time.
  • To give the buyer “air cover” in justifying a decision internally: a B2B buyer wants to be able to tell anyone who asks, but especially his superiors, that they bought a proven product with a 35% ROI that will provide a 15% CAGR by an experienced-based approach to account management. They do not want to tell everyone they chose vendor A because, gee, they really felt good about them—even if that’s the truth.
  • To undergo a required, universal protocol: like meeting ISO standards, following tax rules, or complying with traffic laws, the tight definitions that come from rigorous thinking about value propositions are an assurance of quality. They may be a little pro forma, they may be subject to some tweaking, and they may not be a guarantee. But if everyone must do them, they form a common denominator by which to compare something of importance—value.

Value propositions are powerful, useful, and often necessary. Typically, however, they are not sufficient. Don’t go to into the sale armed with a value proposition alone.

 

This post originally appeared on RainToday.com

Trust Matters, The Podcast: Why Won’t My Client Say ‘YES’? (Episode 2)

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The Degradation of Trust in Marketing

 

Think for a minute about the relationship between words and reality. In theory, we use words to describe reality. In practice, it goes the other way too. The words we use first affect our perceptions of reality, and then – through acting on our perceptions – reality itself.

Propaganda is the obvious example. But there’s a creeping, more insidious form of reality-distortion that has been playing out in the field of marketing in recent years.

Let me hone in on just three words: Content, customer, and relationship.

Ripped from the Headlines

Before and after AT&T’s recent US District Court victory in its pursuit of acquiring Time Warner, CEO Randall Stephenson stated on several occasions (e.g. here and here) the strategic rationale for the deal, basically:

We have direct relationships with over 120 million customers; data analytics allow us to match them to their preferred content, allowing maximum monetization.

I picked this example precisely for its banality. There is nothing incomprehensible about this statement; nothing logically or strategically wrong with it in business terms. We all understand what Stephenson means.

And yet – this statement, had it been made just 10 years ago, would have meant something entirely different. In fact, I’m not sure it would have been even comprehensible. That’s how far we have moved in terms of the meaning of words.

Content. Thanks to the cool Google Trends tool, I can tell you that interest in the  phrase “content marketing” as a search term grew by 1,400% in the 8 years from July 2000 to now.  With that growth came a change in meaning.

Way back then – ten years ago or so – the dictionary definition of ‘content’ was: “the substance or material dealt with in a speech, literary work, etc., as distinct from its form or style.” Synonyms included “subject matter, subject, theme, argument, thesis, message, thrust, substance, matter, material, text, ideas.”

That definition is now woefully out of date. Here’s how Wikipedia talks about content marketing:

“Digital content marketing, which is a management process, uses digital products through different electronic channels to identify, forecast and satisfy the necessity of the customers. It must be consistently maintained to preserve or change the behavior of customers.”

Today’s “content” (new meaning) is literally “content-free” (old meaning). (See how hard it is to talk about this stuff?).  The relevance – and even the substance – of today’s “content” lies solely in its ability to generate changes in behavior.

“Content” no longer means “the substance or material dealt with…as distinct from its form or style.” Instead, it is precisely the ‘form or style’ that has become the arbiter of quality. If they click on it, it’s good quality; if not, it’s bad content.

Anecdote. I get about two inquiries per week from “marketers” offering to write “content” for this blog, including clickable links, for which they offer to pay me.  About two thirds of them literally have spelling or grammatical errors in their (vastly impersonal) emails. Such a low bar, and yet the majority fail.

I invite the minority who can hurdle that low bar to feel free to take a shot, but that they actually have to demonstrate some knowledge of the subject of trust.

Most of them take me up on the offer to send a sample – and every single time, the drivel they send is massively content-free (old definition). It is banal, un-insightful, trivial, showing no interest in the subject matter –  little more than clickbait, cadged from other people’s “content.”

The word “content” has been stripped and flipped. Not only does it no longer mean what it meant – in the case of “content,” it has arguably come to mean the opposite – what we might have called “content-free” in another era.

Customer. This word grew only 300% in relevant Google search interest in the last decade. In the same time period, the word “consumer” actually declined by 50%. I’d like to suggest that today’s “customer” is what we used to mean by “consumer.”

Merriam Webster defines the difference thusly:

Customer: An individual usually having some specified distinctive trait: “a real tough customer”

Consumer: One that utilizes economic goods: “Many consumers make purchases on the internet”

In other words, one is an individual, a person, a human. The other is an abstraction, a datapoint, a statistically refined category.

Back in the 1990s, Martha Rogers and Don Peppers foresaw a brave new world of “One to One Marketing,” in which an organization fine-tuned its responses to address the unique needs of customers, ultimately at the individual level. They talked about “Interacting with customers” individually through “mail, phone, or online communication.”

Let me ask you: If you’re one of Randall Stephenson’s 120 million “customers,” have you recently tried “interacting” with AT&T through “mail, phone, or online communication?” Do you feel like an “individual?” Or like one of many ‘consumers?’

The word “customer” – just like “content” – has been stripped of its common meaning of only a decade ago. It has become bloodless and transactional. [Note: there’s a lot to like about this: I assure you I love buying online and having interconnected CRMs that learn my desires. But I don’t confuse it with having a ‘relationship.’]

Relationship. Google Trends tells us that the popularity of “relationship” as a search term has roughly doubled in the last decade. The Cambridge dictionary suggests “a relationship is the way two or more people are connected, or the way they behavior toward each other….A relationship is also a close romantic relationship between two people.”

That is so last decade.

For Randall Stephenson (and I’m not picking on him alone, it’s true for any BigCo these days), a “relationship” means a billing relationship, i.e. we send them invoices and they interact with our billing system, in accordance with complex fine-print clauses contained in contracts.

Or it can mean “Amazon may want to construct a more seamless relationship with its millions of customers.” Hmmm…ever tried to talk to an Amazonian?

A “relationship” is at the heart of CRM software, the “single largest area of spending in enterprise software” by 2021. Yet said “relationship” is conspicuously devoid of much in the way of interpersonal connection, the essence of the old definition of relationship.

Adding It All Up.

I didn’t call out Stephenson’s last word: monetization. But it speaks volumes for itself.

For all too many companies, monetization has become the goal, the objective, the point. And if your goal is simply and solely to monetize the customer-content relationship, you will end up cheapening the relationship – precisely the opposite result of what (supposedly) was intended. This is no different from shareholder-wealth-maximizing companies of the ’80s. Treating profits as goals rather than outcomes not only ruins relationships, but ultimately ruins profits as well.

Listen, I’m not trying to make a Luddite case. I am all in favor of most things tech and business. I’m trying to point out, however, that when we subconsciously appropriate old words for new realities – and fail to notice the shift – we end up adrift.

Is it any wonder we hear so much about declining customer loyalty? Unfulfilled young people’s real-world relationships? Angst, anomie and anger in social interactions? Reversion to tribal political connections? Lowered institutional trust ratings?

Part of the answer, I believe, is that in our haste for the brave new world, we neglected to provide names for some of the old virtues and values. Yet without names, we can’t talk about them.  And if we can’t talk about them, we forget them, and create a reality devoid of those same virtues and values.

Words – or their absence – really do affect the world we live in.

 

Question Obsession: The Consultant’s Nemesis

Do you go into sales meetings – even meetings with your existing clients – with a slew of prepared questions? Do you constantly find yourself asking question after question in a meeting?

You may be thinking, “Duh, of course. Aren’t we supposed to? How else are you going to demonstrate value added, explore hypotheses, prove your expertise?”

But let’s explore this apparent no-brainer. The fact is, Question Obsession can actually be detrimental. Lets explore why and how.

Consultants and salespeople (especially consultative sellers and sellers of consulting) have learned one mantra, and we love repeating it. It is the mantra that says, “Listen first; talk later.” In other words, it’s all about the question. Ask a great question, the logic goes, and all else will fall into place.

That is the great lesson of Sales and Consulting 101. And I have no beef with it.  The problem is – if you never graduate from 101, you will end up in quicksand because an obsession with questions alone ultimately leads nowhere.

The Obsession with Questions

There’s good reason for the Sales 101 and Consulting 101 lesson of focusing on questions. Go no further than Neil Rackham’s SPIN Selling, in the case of sales, or Peter Block’s classic Flawless Consulting for consultants. Each one shows with wisdom and data that artfully posed questions generate dialogue and interaction, and that is always superior to pre-emptively beating up the client with the answer.

Of course, we often forget our 101 lesson and go into meetings with answers blazing. But that’s not what this article is about. This article is about the downside of obsessing with questions. It’s what happens when we turn the 101 lesson into a mantra, and we begin to focus on questions alone.

Is questioning an obsession? Try doing a web search on “Top Ten Sales Questions;” you’ll get millions of results.

Now ask yourself whether you recognize these themes:

  • Should I ask open-ended or closed-ended questions?
  • Should I ask about implications or needs?
  • Should I ask about the client’s opinions or offer “challenger” questions?

As one sales website puts it, “Get the answers to these questions, and take action based on those answers, and you’ll get the sale. It’s that simple.”

No, it isn’t.

The sales version of question obsession manifests in lists. The consultant version of question obsession manifests in the Great Keystone Arch Question—what is the central supporting element?

You can recognize this form of obsession because it leads consultants speaking among themselves to say things like, “If we can set the data up right, we can frame the discussion such that when we finally pop the Keystone Arch Question, the whole logjam will be released. They’ll feel the pain, envision the solution, and fall all over themselves in a rush to buy our solution.”

No, they won’t.

That’s because good questions are necessary—but not sufficient. You have to have them, but they won’t get you to the end zone.

If all you do is focus on questions, you’ll end up obsessed with yourself, with your solutions and products, and with how clever you are. That’s called high self-orientation, and it will kill trust and sales both. Question obsession is quicksand for salespeople and consultants alike.

Beyond Question Obsession

The narrow purpose of a question is sometimes to get an answer. But there are broader purposes to most questions, and certainly a broader purpose to the art of questioning itself. One is to create a greater sense of insight for the client. Two others are to improve the client relationship and to give the client a sense of empowerment.

These goals are best accomplished not so much by focusing on the “what” of the question but on the “how.” Some examples:

  • Questions to create insight: Consultants often come up with “insights” that only an MBA could understand or that leave the client feeling helpless. These are not useful insights. We don’t want to leave our clients saying, “Gosh, that’s really smart. How will I remember that?” Rather, we want them to say, “Oh, my gosh, of course! it’s so clear when you put it that way, isn’t it?” Our objective is to create insight, not to demonstrate that we have it.
  • Improve the relationship: The better the relationship—buyer/seller or consultant/client—the better everything else gets. Innovation, profitability, time to market, and insights all improve with relationships. Great questions allow the parties to get closer together, more comfortable sharing the uncomfortable, and more willing to take risks by collaborating. Questions such as, “Let me ask you, if I may, do you personally find that scary?” have nothing to do with “content” insight, but they are critical to advancing the relationship.
  • Create client empowerment: The point of all this questioning is not, ultimately, to understand things. It is to change them. And change will not happen if the client feels the insights are threatening, depressing, or out of his control. The key to action is to help the client see ways in which they can change, take control, own, and improve their situation.

It’s not what you ask; it’s how you ask it. All three of these broader objectives have little to do with the content of, or the answer to, a business question. Instead, all of them focus on the outcome of the question-answer interaction. From this perspective, it is not what you ask that is important, but how you ask it. We need to get past the Q&A outcome, which is just about knowledge, and focus on the outcome of the interaction, which is how we help our clients drive change.

Avoid the quicksand: get past questions for questions’ sake, and focus on real business outcomes.