Monday, January 25, 2010

The Art of Client Conversations

When it comes to understanding what the client really wants, it's easy to be misguided. First there's the tendency among many of us to focus only on technical issues. This often leads to not asking the right questions. Many of us also are not the best listeners. And clients often don't tell us what we really need to know. In some cases, they may not even know specifically what they need.

Your firm may excel at providing technical solutions. But without a deep understanding of needs, you'll struggle to deliver the high value solutions that set you apart from the rest. In this series, I've outlined several strategies for uncovering client needs. These include breaking down the three levels of needs, listening effectively, planning for the client meeting, and asking the right questions. In this last post of the series, I'm offering advice about how to manage the flow of the conversation with the client.

Listen more than you speak. There is obviously a give and take in conversation, but most of us are prone to talk too much. That means listening more requires conscious effort. Planning the conversation, in particular what questions you want to ask, is a helpful step in this direction.

Don't try too hard to impress. You naturally want to make a good impression, especially during the sales process. That's probably the primary reason most of us tend to talk too much and listen too little. Showing interest in the client, asking good questions, and actively listening are much better ways to win over the client.

Stick to a reasonable range of topics. It's easy to try to cover too much ground in any given meeting with the client, particularly early when there are many information gaps. This often leads to rushing the conversation, asking questions without allowing adequate time for detailed responses. Part of planning your time with the client is to consider how you might collect information over more than one meeting where appropriate.

Use "Golden Silence." One of the most productive techniques I've used in client conversations over the years is something I learned from Miller and Heiman's book Conceptual Selling. It's called Golden Silence, and it capitalizes on our natural aversion to gaps of silence in conversation. Here's how it works:

  • Ask then pause. When you ask a question, wait about 4-5 seconds to allow the client to respond. Then, if the client seems confused or uncomfortable with the question, rephrase it. But only after giving him or her a sufficient pause.

  • Listen then pause. After the client responds to your question, wait another 4-5 seconds before commenting or asking the next question. Often this encourages the client to elaborate on his or her response. At the very least, this pause gives you a moment to think about your response or the next question.

Golden Silence, used properly, works at the subconscious level (in the client) and can really reveal some excellent insights that you would have missed otherwise. But don't overuse it or the client may well notice.

Use verbal cues to expand responses as well. There are a variety of things you can say to prompt the client to give you more detailed and unambiguous responses. "Could you explain how that works?" or "So what happens then?" are just two examples. Mixing these with Golden Silence will give you the best results. But you can't be afraid to reveal that you don't fully understand their initial response, which is a hindrance for some.

Be sensitive of the client's time. The first way to do this is to come prepared to share something of value. Traditional sales calls routinely violate this principle. But you also don't want to overstay your welcome. Don't merely assume that because the client continues the conversation that it's okay to linger. Ask if the client would like to extend the meeting or schedule another conversation later (it's always a good idea to establish a basis for the next meeting!).

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Asking the Right Questions: Part 2

Great listening and great questions go hand in hand, and both are necessary in uncovering the client's real needs. Why is this important? Because the value of your solutions is enhanced when you better understand the problems. What technical professionals often miss is that the client's problems are typically defined in large part by nontechnical, even subjective, factors. Asking the right questions involves exploring areas outside the limits of your expertise.

In my previous post (Part 1), I outlined a basic strategy for planning and asking good questions. In this space, I want to talk about question types and sequencing. Sound a bit too esoteric? There is actually quite a body of evidence regarding the power of questioning strategy.

The popular book SPIN Selling was based on perhaps the most extensive research of the sales process ever done. Through observing thousands of sales calls, the author (Neil Rackham) and his associates discovered a sequence of questions that was particularly effective. This sequence involved what they called Situation, Problem, Implication, and Needs-Payoff questions (hence the acronym SPIN). I've modified the terminology and sequence a bit based on my own experiences:

These comprise what I call the "Question Progression." Research and experience show that generally following this progression will yield a better understanding of the client's needs, and better position you to make the sale. Here is a brief description of the question types:

Context Questions. These questions provide a general overview of the client's situation, key issues, and project drivers. Context Questions include questions about the all-important strategic needs described earlier. This is a good place to start in uncovering client needs. Examples of this kind of question are:

  • When was the existing facility constructed?
  • How much do you have funded for capital improvements?
  • What steps has your agency taken in response to declining revenues?

Concern Questions. These questions focus on revealing the client's problems, challenges, and discomfort. Technical professionals often start here, but you will better understand the client's needs if you first understand the situational, organizational, and strategic context. Example Concern Questions are:

  • Is the current system meeting your needs?
  • How often has the plant exceeded permit limits?
  • Why do you think flows have increased so dramatically?

Consequence Questions. While each step of the Question Progression is important, Consequence Questions represent the apex of the process. And, unfortunately, this type of question is often overlooked in discussions with clients. Consequence Questions seek to uncover the implications and magnitude of the concerns identified earlier. These consequences are often expressed in terms of impact on the client's business or mission and on the people involved.

Here's why Consequence Questions are particularly important: Handled properly, these questions not only uncover the impacts of the problem for your understanding, they help clarify them for the client (combined with your shared insights). This has the effect of magnifying the perceived problem, which makes your solution all the more valuable (and less price sensitive). I don't mean to suggest that you are "playing up" the implications of the client's issues. Rather you are helping the client better understand their real need.

Example Consequence Questions are:

  • How does this problem impact your operational goals?
  • Is this a significant concern to the community?
  • How do you feel about the council's response to this issue?

Course-of-Action Questions. This step involves exploring potential solutions with the client. One of the best ways to test potential options is with "what if?" questions ("What if we pretreated that waste stream with UV/oxidation?). That encourages collaboration with the client (I'm amazed how often technical professionals develop solutions without actively engaging the client!). Course-of-Action Questions also clarify client expectations regarding project outcomes. Some examples:

  • What if you simply added a second chamber? Would that work for you?
  • So are you thinking that reinforced concrete is the better option?
  • So how soon do you need that to be completed?

Commitment Questions. These questions are a valuable way to gage the client's conviction to act, to test the strength of the relationship, or to move the discussion towards closure. They help convert ideas into actions, to define specific steps and confirm the client's intent to follow through. Example questions include:

  • Could we set up a meeting with the City Manager?
  • Are you willing to recommend this option to the committee?
  • Would you be interested in visiting that facility with me?

The Question Progression moves the dialogue with the client from an initial needs assessment, to problem definition, to development of potential solutions and selection of the best option. Pretty basic, isn't it? But not as commonly done as one might imagine. That's why using the Question Progression effectively can give you a competitive edge.

Next week, the final installment in this series of posts on uncovering the client's needs. Stay tuned.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Asking the Right Questions: Part 1

The only reliable means to define what really matters to the client is to ask. That's stating the obvious. But I could recount numerous situations where the important questions were never asked. Why? In some cases, it was simple neglect. In others, the A/E firm assumed too much (and those assumptions often proved inaccurate). More commonly, I don't think the technical professionals involved knew which questions to ask, or how.

A case in point: Several months ago I was helping an engineering firm prepare a proposal for the design of a new wastewater treatment plant. The client, a coastal town in the Southeast, had two small plants and wanted to combine them into one. I asked what seemed an obvious question, "Why is the client doing this?"

The two principal engineers I was working with didn't know. They hadn't asked that question in the course of two conversations with the client. "We need to know the answer," I said. "Why does it matter?" responded one of the engineers, "We know what the project is and we know how to do the work." "How can you solve a problem," I replied, "if you don't know why it's a problem?"

Think this is an isolated occurrence? I wish it was. I've worked on hundreds of proposals over the years and have consistently asked the why question. More often than not, the answer I've received has been less than satisfactory (although at least most recognize they should know the answer!). And that's just one of several recurring gaps in understanding the client's needs.

So where do you start in asking better questions? A few suggestions:

Plan your meetings with the client. Simple but often ignored advice. When someone convinced me to do this years ago I had considerable sales experience and felt quite comfortable "winging it." But my success in closing sales and satisfying customers increased noticeably when I began planning each client meeting. Not only did I get more from these meetings, but more importantly, the client received more value from the time we spent together.

Identify information gaps. Begin your planning by making an honest assessment of how well you understand the client's needs and expectations. Break down the issue or project into its various components such as scope, budget, schedule, strategic drivers, key stakeholders, etc., and ask yourself questions such as:
  • Do we really know what the client expects or how the client feels about each aspect?
  • Do we understand the client's priorities among these issues? Which matter most?
  • Where are we vulnerable in our lack of understanding? Where do the risks lie?
Plan your questions in advance. This involves determining both (1) what you want to ask (to close the information gaps identified) and (2) how you want to ask. Concerning the latter, you should have a general sequence of questioning in mind. This is what I call the "Question Progression," which I'll describe in my next post.

Explore the three levels of client needs. As noted in my earlier post, we have a tendency to focus on one level--technical needs. Answering the why question relates to the client's strategic needs. You can download a list of strategic needs questions from my website. Personal needs include the expectations relating to the working relationship, which will differ among each client contact. You might find the Client Service Planner helpful in deciding what questions to ask in this regard.
Define the strategic context before delving into technical issues. In other words, start by uncovering strategic needs before jumping into the technical needs that typically attract the bulk of our attention. Knowing the driving forces behind the client's technical issues and concerns enables you to devise better technical solutions.

Explore personal needs in depth only after developing a rapport. People vary in how open they are in sharing personal feelings and perspectives. A general rule is to proceed cautiously in asking about such matters, as some will be uncomfortable with the perceived intrusion. It's hard to give specific direction here; you'll have to sense how ready the client is share from the heart. Some get there quickly (in the first meeting), others may take months or never get to that point with you. But don't avoid trying to uncover personal needs, because understanding them can greatly enhance your value proposition.

Monday, January 4, 2010

How to Really Listen

If you want to excel as a consultant or designer, you need to learn how to really listen to the client. It's not as easy as it seems. Clients report that professional service providers, smart as they are, often don't know how to listen well. In fact, being smart can be a barrier to listening.

Being a good listener is not something you merely learn. It's a behavior, a habit, something we usually do unconsciously (which is one reason we struggle with it). So no list of tips such as what follows is going to transform anyone's listening skills. But the strategies below can be helpful if you're diligent in trying to put them into practice:

Genuinely care what the client has to say. Effective listening is as much a disposition as a skill. If you want to be a better listener primarily because of the benefits you'll reap, you're not likely to see significant improvement. The best listeners are those who really want to hear what the other person has to say.

Listen for identification, not just for information. Develop your skill for empathetic listening, where you seek to understand the client as a person. Pay close attention for clues as to what the client is thinking and feeling, not just to what is being said. Try to put yourself in the client's frame of reference.

Avoid selective listening. There's a tendency to listen for specific content--issues where we have particular expertise, needs that fit our service offerings, information that seems to confirm what we already thought. This can lead to a misunderstanding of what the client is trying to tell us. Self-interest, of course, is at the root of this shortcoming. Focus on the client instead.

Listen with both your ears and your eyes. Nonverbal signals can comprise more than half of what is conveyed in conversation, according to various studies. Watch carefully for that nonverbal communication. If you're taking notes, avoid spending too much time writing, which averts your eyes from the client. Make cryptic notations instead, then fill out the details immediately after the meeting while they're still fresh in your memory.

Don't respond or jump to conclusions too quickly. Our self-focus is often evidenced in our tendency to interrupt, talk too much, and offer unsolicited opinions. Concentrate on listening instead, speaking primarily when it's evident the client is looking for your input. Ask enough questions to adequately understand the situation before providing insights or advice. Consultation offered too soon can undermine your efforts to build trust and demonstrate your abilities.

Confirm understanding where appropriate. Sometimes we're hesitant to reveal that we don't understand what the client told us. Other times we incorrectly assume that we understand when we actually don't. In either case, it's a good idea to ask for clarification. One common piece of advice is to periodically summarize in your own words the key points you took from what was said, asking the client to confirm that you understand correctly.

Listening goes beyond merely gathering information or even learning about the other person. It responds to an innate human desire to be heard and valued. That desire usually goes unsatisfied because so few are really interested and listening. When you demonstrate genuine interest and listen intently, you are building rapport and trust with the client. Done right, listening is a gift you give to the client--one that both parties can share the benefits of.

Of course, effective listening is typically coupled with the ability to ask the right questions. That will be the topic of my next post.