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Customer Relationships: Using questions to create more value with clients

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It is surprising to no one that the way you ask a question can yield different responses. And in a customer relationship, asking questions and framing them properly can allow you to deliver far more value than simply taking a client request at face value.

Spoiler Alert: Starting a question with What or When will result in fact-based responses. Starting a question with How or Why will result in value-based responses.

An example:
My Client: I want you to develop a survey for me
Me: What do you want to learn from doing a survey?
My Client: I want to learn what publications my customers read. (Fact)
Me: Why do you want to learn what publications your customers read?
My Client: So that I can choose where to place my advertisements next year. (Some insight)
Me: How will that help you?
My Client: My company has been auditing all of our advertising and marketing expenses to find ways to cut back and they’ve been critical of how we manage our budget…. (Much more insight)

Now I really understand what’s going on with my client and can help him solve his core issue: justifying his budget. Sure, the solution may include a survey, but it also may include other tactics that address the core internal issue.

Here’s a conversation I had with my son as we were taking him back to his college for his second semester of freshman year: He said, “I’m really looking forward to this semester.” I asked, “What are you looking forward to?” He said, “Soccer and my engineering class.”

I realized that the way I framed my question yielded facts but little insight, so I went back and asked, “So tell me more about why you are looking forward to this semester?” He then told me that his first semester taught him how teachers grade and that points for commenting on Blackboard really added up, and that he’d been reading about overcoming procrastination, and that he had come up with some strategies for getting his work done this semester, and that he had come up with a daily routine to organize himself. This was the longest conversation we’d had all break, and boy was I thrilled to get a glimpse into what he valued.

The question “What is most important to your agency?” will yield a list of attributes: “my employees, my budget, my partners.” But the question, “How do you decide what is important to your agency?” will yield an entirely different response…. “My senior leaders and I sit down once a month and talk about what’s going well and not going well in our agency and we don’t always agree on our day-to-day priorities, but we agree that mission customers come first.”

Now you are learning things that may enable you to help your customer at a deeper level. You’ve learned they have a monthly senior leaders meeting, you’ve learned they don’t always agree, but that it is important to them to discuss, and that they put customer care above all else. You are uncovering values, beliefs, and needs.

So, it is important to collect the facts, yes, by starting your sentences with What and When, but you also need to find out why those facts are important and what your client values by asking questions that start with How and Why.

H/T to Bill Butcher of Butcher Consulting for sharing his insight on this topic with me.