If you want to improve your client relationships, a great place to start is employing a technique that children use every day.
Anyone who has children knows how the following scene plays out.
Kid: Dad, why is the sky blue?
Me: The sky is blue because of the way sunlight interacts with our atmosphere.
Kid: Dad, what is the atmosphere?
Me: The atmosphere is the air that people, plants and animals breathe to survive.
Kid: What is air?
Me: Stop asking me questions I don’t know the answer to!!!#@#[email protected]@$
Of course, the length of this conversation and the level of yelling involved differ according to the parental patience level.
The fact is, kids ask questions. Lots of questions. All the time. The reason they keep asking questions is that it helps them frame the world around them. They ask because they want to learn the answer.
As an adult, asking good questions is an often underutilised superpower.
Research shows that asking good questions builds trust and establishes credibility and empathy between people. “The Surprising Power of Questions” by Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John (Harvard Business Review) establishes the benefits of asking questions as:
It spurs learning and the exchange of ideas, it fuels innovation and performance improvement, it builds rapport and trust among team members. And it can mitigate business risk by uncovering unforeseen pitfalls and hazards.
Assuming you want to fuel innovation, improve performance, build rapport and trust, and mitigate business risk, asking your client questions seems like a great place to start.
But what makes a good question? And what stops us from asking questions in the first place?
What stops us from asking questions?
According to Greg Busin, in “That’s a Great Question: Provocative Questions, Practical Results”, there are five main factors:
- Arrogance: assuming we already know the answer
- Self-centeredness: not caring what others think
- Fear of embarrassment: A belief that asking questions may reveal ignorance
- Disturbing the status quo: Risk of being unpopular by asking a challenging question
- Fear of the answer: revealing an uncomfortable truth
In an agency, you may feel your need to demonstrate your expertise to clients at all times. Counterintuitively, overcoming the urge to be the expert and asking a good question instead puts you in control. Good questions gently guide the conversation to where you need it to be.
What makes a good question?
For more thorough responses, avoid questions that solicit yes or no answers. You want more than yes/no answers. You want your client to open up so you can learn something. Open-ended questions put you on a path of discovery.
Instead of asking “will you be the final decision maker?”, which invites a yes/no response, consider asking “who will be involved in the final decision?”
Open-ended questions get your client to teach you something about themselves. Some great examples include:
- What criteria are most important in this decision?
- Is there anything about us that concerns you?
- What options are you considering?
- What risks can I help you avoid?
- What return on investment are you seeking?
- What is the impact of not achieving this ROI?
Don’t just ask. Stop talking, and LISTEN.
It might sound simple, but it takes practice to listen.
Advertising & marketing are opinionated industries. Agencies can be hired on the strength of their opinions alone, often leading to more talking and less listening.
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”― Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change
Most people listen on a superficial level. They are busy trying to figure out the point instead of concentrating fully on what is being said. The moment they think they have an idea about where the speaker is headed, their attention shifts back inward to what their response will be.
Chris Voss, a former lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI, tells Harvard Business School Online it’s vital to demonstrate your willingness to listen.
“A lot of people are used to being asked questions and not having their answers listened to,” Voss says. “If you turn them off, it gives them permission to turn you off.”
Simply adding a statement such as “tell me more” encourages your client to continue sharing. The best piece of advice is to stop talking and listen. You will be amazed at what you can learn.
Ask follow-up questions
The key to true understanding is the follow-up question. Unfortunately, as explained previously, most people aren’t paying close enough attention to ask detailed follow-up questions. To ask a good follow-up, you need to pay close attention to the initial response and then build on that answer.
- Can you tell me more about that?
- How did it change things?
- Who was involved in the decision?
- What did this matter to them?
According to “The Surprising Power of Questions” by Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John (Harvard Business Review):Follow-up questions seem to have a special power. They signal to your conversation partner that you are listening, care, and want to know more. People interacting with a partner who asks lots of follow-up questions tend to feel respected and heard.
Developing a better understanding of your clients business while having them feeling respected and heard seems like a pretty solid outcome to all.
To bring it back to the kid, what a five year old you knew intuitively is that there are no dumb questions. Unfortunately, this seems to get beaten out of us as we get older.
So next time you are with your client, don’t be afraid to ask questions. They are your most straightforward path to learning, and your relationship will be all the better for it.
This blog was written by Stephen Neville, the CEO of BugHerd.com.