The average professional adviser talks too much in selling situations. The art to winning work is to build credibility, rapport and trust in client relationships. And the best way to do that is primarily through asking questions and demonstrating that you are listening and tuning in to what the client is saying. Easy to say. Harder to do.
So, here are some tips on the art of asking the right kind of questions. I use the acronym BICS to explain the sequence:
B – ‘Background’ questions
I – Questions to uncover ‘Issues’
C – Questions to review the issues and build ‘Concerns’ in the mind of the client
S – Questions to draw up an action plan to provide appropriate ‘Solutions’
We are not advocating going through this whole process in one go either! A pushy style should be avoided because it will undermine the trust you are trying to build in the relationship.
Examples of Background questions
In some situations, it will be possible for you to prepare before meeting the contact, perhaps by reading recent press articles and reviewing internal databases, such as who knows whom. This allows you to channel the conversation towards particular areas (eg the German acquisition referred to below). Preparation should be possible if the meeting is planned, perhaps with the contact attending an in-house seminar. But even if you just bump into somebody at a reception, start with comfortable background questions, such as:
- How is business?
- How is the German acquisition going?
- How long have you worked here?
- What is your role?
Notice that some of the questions are about the business and some of them are about the person. Clients typically buy from advisers when they feel there is a personal connection (ie rapport). It can help if you open up a bit about yourself, such as where you live. But, because everybody is different, you need to find a way of connecting that suits the client.
I walked into a partner’s office once and saw lots of photographs of mountains on the wall. I don’t know much about mountains, but I’m a keen amateur photographer, so we talked about the pictures and started to build a good personal connection.
The discussion should not be an interrogation. Avoid the sequence question-answer-question-answer etc. Instead, try question-answer-comment, question-answer-comment, etc.
Also, you will accelerate the process if you ask good probing questions based on what the client has just said.
- Can you say more about that?
- In what way?
Examples of Issues questions
Assuming you have successfully built credibility, rapport and trust during this opening phase, you will find the conversation moves on. Sometimes the client will escalate the conversation and disclose particular challenges they are facing. This might happen in your first discussion, though it usually happens subsequently.
Questions that can draw out the challenges facing the client, include:
- What are you working on at the moment?
- What priorities do you have over the next year or so?
- Are there any particular challenges you’re facing?
Notice how these questions are deeper than the ‘background’ questions and require a closer relationship for the client to be comfortable answering them.
Examples of Concerns questions
Empirical studies show that buyers don’t necessarily buy anything to address their challenges. They need good reasons to make a purchase, particularly if this involves giving work to a new firm! The most effective advisers do not offer solutions too soon. If they do, the client will probably give you a polite ‘no’. What often happens is they cancel the next meeting. This is a sign that they weren’t convinced that there was value to them in giving up time to talk about the issue further.
The most effective approach is to help the client appreciate the benefits of addressing the issue, as well as the risks or implications of them not addressing it!
Questions designed to achieve this include:
- If you could avoid these disputes, what effect would that have?
- What would be the impact of resolving this? On the business, on you or your department?
- What’s the worst that has happened?
- What could happen if this is not addressed?
A partner skilled in this technique managed to sell his services to a contact who said early on in the meeting that he used a magic circle firm and he was very happy with the service from them. The prospect of work did not look promising. However, through some skilled questioning the partner raised the awareness of the risks in not having a second string firm ‘in the wings’, in case their usual firm was conflicted out. He won some work on the basis that the client could now be assured that there would always be a firm which could help!
The other result from carrying out this phase of the selling conversation effectively is that the adviser has helped the client see the value to them of addressing their concerns. They can perceive the benefit of addressing the issue and can see the value of mitigating the risks. They now know that they are not going to pay a bargain basement fee.
Examples of Solutions questions
This phase is relatively straightforward. Questions need to be designed to move towards a solution involving you helping the client, such as:
- Would you like to talk about ways of addressing this issue?
- What exactly would you like to achieve?
- Who else might need to be consulted to move forward on this?
- Would you like to know how we could help?
Quite often the client gives you what are called ‘buying signals’ when they raise the practical aspects of moving forward.
Kipling had some wise words on this subject of questions:
“I kept six honest serving men, they taught me all I knew. Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who”
Then there’s the old Chinese proverb:
“He who asks a question risks being seen as foolish for 5 seconds, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever!”