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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.
Mike O. explains how he came to understand what it means to be a trusted advisor.
Getting It Right
I had been a consultant for many years. I had a good sense of what client service meant – that I should pursue the right thing for my client, rather than just what I thought was the coolest idea.
I had learned the importance of communication. You had to be clear on your thinking in the first place, then be articulate about getting points across. I knew about body language, about using graphics and not just data, and about dramatic presentations.
I knew all this was hard work and that even with good effort and skill, it was still not an easy task to persuade clients of what I knew to be in their best interest.
Then one day something happened.
Getting It Inside Out
I’d gotten to know Manuel reasonably well. We had spent time together “thinking aloud” and had gained respect for each other as thinkers.
We were talking about some business issue, I honestly don’t recall what. Toward the end he asked me what I thought he should do about a particular angle.
At that moment I was completely at ease. The job was going well. He and I got along nicely. It was a sunny day.
I knew the issue inside out. I knew what Manuel was good at and not good at, what he liked and didn’t like, and how he was likely to respond to the particular situation.
In that moment I could envision exactly what would work for him – while still from my perspective as an outsider. It was like being him, but without any attachment to either his limitations, or to my ego. I knew what would be exactly right for him to do.
“If I were you,” I began – and suddenly everything changed.
He leaned in toward me, relaxed, but focused and intent on what I was going to tell him. He really wanted to hear what I would say next – and I knew he was going to do exactly what I suggested.
Now, I know how to read body language. I realized this had not happened before. Every other time I gave advice to clients, they leaned back or sat up straight; they stiffened their back, rather than relaxing. Their eyes narrowed, rather than opening up; they were preparing to evaluate what I had to say.
But Manuel wasn’t in evaluation mode; he was going to accept exactly what I said, and we both knew it.
If I Were You…
I realized later those words both triggered and expressed a new perspective. Until then, I had always thought of consulting as telling the client what I thought they should do. I was the expert, they were paying me to get my expert advice. I packaged my advice to maximize the chances they’d do the right thing.
But it was always me, advising them. With Manuel, for the first time, I’d gotten outside myself. I’d realized what I would do if I were him.
I no longer had to be me, telling my clients what to do. I could tap into being them, imagining what it was like, what would work, and what wouldn’t. All I had to do was imagine putting myself in their shoes.
I realized they really did want my advice – if I was a steward about it, really reflecting their take on things. I became more careful about giving my advice, waiting until I not only had the facts and the problem straight, but had a chance to empathize with the client as well. That way, when the time came, I knew I could sincerely say, “If I were you…”
Consulting began to get a lot easier. I still had to do the leg work, the thinking, the presenting. But I no longer felt it was a struggle. I now know, my best advising comes when I’m able to put myself in the other guy’s shoes.
Thanks, Mike, eloquently said.
Starting today, I am offering a direct consulting/coaching service – one-on-one with me personally, via email – to a limited number of people.
Read more about the program at trustedadvisor.com/econsulting
All the detail is contained at trustedavisor.com/econsulting, but here are a few FAQs:
Q. How does it work?
A. Up to one email interchange per day between you personally, and me, Charlie Green, for 8 weeks.
Q. What do you mean, you, personally? Doesn’t your team develop the answers?
A. Oh no. I mean me, Charlie Green, 100%, personally, individually, writing every email response with my own key-tapping fingers. Me. No one else.
Q. Is this a replacement for your existing coaching offerings?
A. No. We continue to offer excellent traditional coaching services through Stewart Hirsch. This is via email, more concentrated, more transactional, more action-based; read the full eConsulting page for more insight.
Q. Who is it for?
A. People who want very fast, very practical, very personalized advice on specific situations from me personally. Got a key client meeting or sales call coming up in two days? That’s what this is for. It’s all in the full eConsulting page.
Q. How many openings are there?
A. A one-digit number of slots; this will take time, and I’m not giving up my day job.
Q. How much does it cost?
A. Read through the full eConsulting page; it’s there, I promise you.
A few years ago, I watched Bill Green, Chairman and CEO of Accenture, as he addressed a very senior leadership group at the end of a 2-day offsite meeting. Relaxed, he sat on a stage chair on a small platform and took questions from the 75-80 people in the room.
About halfway in, someone asked about a recently announced organizational shift.
“Bill,” the person asked, “how do we know that the incentives are rightly aligned with the new global roles; that if I ask my colleague in Eastern Europe or Australia for help, they’ll be incented to do the right thing?”
Green quickly stood up, visibly tensing at the question.
“Let me—well–,” he sputtered, “OK, I guess I’m glad you asked that question. Because I want to tell you—I don’t want to hear that question again!
“Here’s what I mean. And I expect every one in this room to get this; moreover, I expect everyone in this room to make sure you teach everyone back in your offices too.
“Here’s the thing. When there’s a conflict between the incentives and the right thing: you do the right thing, and then fix the incentives later. Understand? This is critical.
“We must be a values-driven organization before we are an incentives-driven organization. You design incentives to reinforce and reward behavior—you don’t design them to drive behavior. Values are what we need to drive behavior. If there’s a mismatch: you fix the incentives. After you do the right thing.
“And just to be clear: the right thing is almost always defined in terms of the client—not in terms of our internal P&L distribution.
“Now—am I being clear enough? Thanks for the question. And I don’t want to hear it again.”
Bill Green was plenty clear that day about what was important. When he said "the right thing," he meant principles like client focus, taking a longer term perspective, and collaboration. And he was clear that principles, not incentives, were the way to establish a values-driven organization.
For my part, when people ask me to name a big company that does trust well, Accenture is one of the few names I mention. Every company is far from perfect, but some are less so than others. Accenture is a lot better than most, and I think it’s because of the kind of leadership Bill Green demonstrated so clearly in this situation.
That’s what leading from principle sounds like.
You always suspected it, and I’m here to tell you it’s true.
The art of general management and strategic consulting lies in the mastery of a few simple tools. Now, despite the inevitable threats against my person made by parties who do not want to see the Truth revealed, I am about to share with you, Trust Matters readers, the Three Strategic Secret Sauces. Guard them carefully.
Secret Sauce One: The Rule of the Axes.
Short form: Draw two axes. Now decide what to label them.
You’ve seen this rule before, though perhaps you never noticed it for what it was. Consider:
- • The Laffer Curve: tax rates by governmental revenue
- • The classic Business Barnyard Matrix: market share by growth rate of a business
- • Newspaper headline font levels on disaster stories by distance between the paper’s home town and the location of the disaster
- • New York Magazine’s Approval Matrix (highbrow/lowbrow by brilliant/despicable)
Why is the Rule of the Axes such a hit? Because it simplifies complexity, immediately giving the axes-author the appearance of wisdom.
(Close cousins: Occam’s razor, and the rule of “always use 3-4 bullet points”)
Secret Sauce Two: The 80-20 Rule.
Short form: Look for concentration—in anything.
Classic formulations of the 80-20 rule include:
- • 80% of the revenue/profit comes from 20% of the clients
- • 80% of the taxes are paid by 20% of the citizens
- • 80% of the crimes are committed by 20% of the population
- • 80% of the Ivy League admissions come from 20% of the population
The 80-20 rule works because it forces the mind toward points of leverage. A good strategist always looks for maximum effect with minimum resources—just like a military general, or a change manager. (Note: it doesn’t have to actually be 80/20, in fact it rarely is. Anywhere above 60/40 can work.)
Secret Sauce Three: Vicious and Virtuous Circles.
Short form: Find what works, or doesn’t; add a few interim steps, draw them in a circle to make it appear permanent.
Here are some examples:
- • Parental abuse drives fear, which drives aggression, which drives pre-emptive defense, which drives abuse
- • US auto companies give up low-margin segment, which drives market share for low-margin Asian competitors, which increases their volume, which lowers price, which lowers margins, which causes US auto companies to give up the next-lower margin segment
- • You empower what you fear
- • The fastest way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.
The Circles are powerful because they force us out of traditional linear models, and because they make sense of what often appears contradictory. The Circles offer a narrative, and usually suggest points at which to intervene to change the narrative. They also sound amazingly like rules and laws of nature, even when they’re bogus.
So there you have it. And guess what:
- • If you chart usage of these three tools against business success, you’ll find a clear correlation;
- • In fact, 80% of general management and strategic consulting goes to the 20% who have mastered these three tools;
- • The more these three tools get used, the better known they get, the more clients learn to recognize excellent tool mastery on the part of consultants, the more they get hired for excellent use of these three tools, and the more they get used.
Now you too can be quoted, command high rates, and gain that aura of the oracle that surrounds the Great Strategists. Just use the three tools.
Your financial tokens of gratitude for this revelation may be sent to me at trustedadvisor.com. Credit cards and PayPal are accepted. You’re welcome.
According to Wikipedia, comedians use self-deprecating humor “to avoid seeming arrogant or pompous and to help the audience identify with them.” Sounds like a good strategy for anyone looking to build trust and rapport with another human being. Sounds like an especially good strategy for anyone in the consulting profession.
Ask any client who has worked with consultants over the years – they’ll have at least a few horror stories to tell about the Big Important Expert they hired. That creates messes we are all left to clean up.
Self-deprecation is an art that should be routinely practiced by anyone who claims the title “consultant.”
Here’s some material for your toolkit (original author unknown):
Top Ten Things You’ll Never Hear from a Consultant
1. You’re right; we’re billing way too much for this
2. Bet you I can go a week without saying “synergy” or “value-added”
3. How about paying us based on the success of the project?
4. This whole strategy is based on a Harvard business case I read
5. Actually, the only difference is that we charge more than they do
6. I don’t know enough to speak intelligently about that
7. Implementation? I only care about writing long reports
8. I can’t take the credit. It was Ed in your marketing department
9. The problem is, you have too much work for too few people
10. Everything looks okay to me
Share this with your clients. They’ll enjoy laughing at your expense. And they’ll appreciate your ability to laugh at yourself!
I have always been simultaneously amused and appalled by consultant-speak–and no more than when I hear it coming out of my own mouth. You know the buzz words. Like snakes in the underbrush, they lie everywhere, buried inside complex sentences:
* “The key to success for your organization is to discern how to leverage your assets for maximum return.” (Nowhere in Merriam-Webster is “leverage” a verb).
* “We’re experts at operationalizing your business strategy.” (“Operationalize” is simply. not. in. the. dictionary).
* “Let’s utilize existing frameworks wherever we can.” (This one actually is in the dictionary, but it’s a pretty complicated way to say “use,” dontcha think?)
More cringe-inducing, we don’t just write idiot-speak, we actually talk it! It’s humorous at best, but trust-damaging at worst. Imagine being a client and having to decipher all this lingo. Imagine being a client, sitting through the 100th presentation given by the third consulting firm to be hired in the last three years, and thinking quietly to yourself, “I thought these guys were going to be different.”
One way we can stand apart – while simultaneously creating real human-to-human connection – is to simplify our language. You know, say it in plain language.
For an insightful and humorous take on this subject, check out Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter’s Guide written by Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway, and Jon Warshawsky – notably, three consultants. Here’s an excerpt from the book:
“Jargon, wordiness, and evasiveness are the active ingredients of modern business-speak, and they make up the Obscurity Trap. This trap is particularly pervasive, and its perpetrators are evil people who want to destroy civilization as we know it. (Well, okay, not really, but it felt good to get that out.) We call this a trap because the people who spew jargon and all of that evasiveness really aren’t evil at all.
What can we do?
Listen to yourself. What do you hear? What are you really trying to say?
I worked 15 years for a strategy consultancy, then 4 years for a change management firm. They were wildly different. The first celebrated raw brain power. The second focused on emotional alignment. (This explains my schizophrenia).
I then went off on my own to do trust work.
A few years later, I collaborated with an ex-strategy colleague, an excellent consultant. Call him Ishmael. He was in Boston, me in New Jersey; we met in Stamford to spend the day working together.
He began, “Let’s first spend a few hours discussing what it is the client wants.” A classic strategy question. I settled in to the old easy chair.
Then it hit me. “No, Ishmael,” I said, “let’s just call the client and ask them what they want.”
Ishmael was not impressed, but that was OK. I knew I’d just discovered something.
David Maister has a medical metaphor to describe professional services firms. There are Nurses, Pharmacists, Family Doctors, and Brain Surgeons.
Many firms aspire to be Brain Surgeons. The market says the true number is far smaller. Brain surgeons, as Maister points out, are known for two things. One is great technical mastery; the other is a low degree of client interaction.
There are great examples of the “brain surgeon” model. Think of the leading strategy firms, used-to-be investment banks, think tanks, many top law firms. They are high-margin businesses, pay high salaries, and cultivate a mystique of envy and status.
And—I would argue—they are grossly under-achieving.
Why? Because of the cult of intellect. We revere IQ in this culture; it is more important to cite Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence than to read it–much less practice it.
Malcolm Gladwell punctures this cult of intellect in talking about innovation:
Ideas weren’t precious. They were everywhere, which suggested that maybe the extraordinary process that we thought was necessary for invention—genius, obsession, serendipity, epiphany—wasn’t necessary at all.
He describes Nathan Myhrvold’s first Innovation Session, bringing together a half-dozen brilliant people:
"He thought if we came up with a half-dozen good ideas it would be great, and we came up with somewhere between fifty and a hundred. I said to him, ‘But you had eight people in that room who are seasoned inventors. Weren’t you expecting a multiplier effect?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but it was more than multiplicity.’ Not even Nathan had any idea of what it was going to be like."
The finest law firms and strategic consultancies are great in large part not because of brilliance, but because of brilliance shared. The pity is, their very ethos denigrates the “share” part of the equation.
As Maister says, part of the “brain surgeon” model is the image of high-on-a-mountain solo thinkers who occasionally interact—and only with each other—to create brilliance.
How much enormous value is left on the table because of the celebration of an heroic myth of solo cogitation, rather than of direct intellectual, collaborative contact with the client? Two bright people working collaboratively can usually out-think one very bright person. Make it four people, and there’s no contest.
The answer is to focus not on getting better and better at solo cognitive manipulation, but also on sharing that brilliance in a way that is ego-less, collaborative, and enthusiastic. Brilliant 1 plus brilliant 1 makes not 2, but 5. As Myrvohld said, it’s way beyond multiplicity.
The absent-minded professor, the eccentric genius are respected, even revered. But this just lets them off the hook. By idolizing such anti-social behavior, we are rewarding mediocrity relative to what they are capable of accomplishing.