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. The trouble is, if you never graduate from 101, you will end up in quicksand because an obsession with questions 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.