Asking the Right Questions – Doing your Homework

Here’s a true story that best illustrates the absolute necessity of understanding customers’ needs.  It also offers a bonus lesson on when it’s sometimes better to shut up rather than speak.

Several years ago, a consulting team from one of the “big” firms finally snagged a full hour with the CEO of a global consumer products business.  Suited up and armed with the requisite powerpoint deck for the meeting, the lead consultant asked the CEO what he assumed was a harmless question to get the ball rolling: “Tell us about your biggest challenges”.

The CEO was apoplectic.  He hadn’t called this meeting to outline his challenges to a group of outside consultants.  He had agreed to sit down and listen to their ideas for improving his bottom line.  In any event, the meeting was cut short.   And that particular firm never had the opportunity to pitch that CEO again.

In our view, the CEO was absolutely right – the consulting team should have walked through the door knowing exactly what the CEO’s challenges were. They could have read the most recent annual report, read interviews with the CEO published in the press and studied analysts reports. There was simply no excuse for their ignorance.

Two (painful) lessons learned:

Don’t put your foot in your mouth.  Never ask an ill-thought out “icebreaker” type of question.  In a high pressure situation, our natural inclination is to get the conversation started but, for goodness’ sake, think before you speak, especially if this is your one and only chance before an important decision-maker.

Do put your foot in your client’s shoe.  Walk in your clients’ boots by doing research.  Set a Google alert on your top prospects.  Got to sites like vault.com to see what their own people say about them. Check out indeed.com to see who they are hiring.  Check out the obvious too like the client’s press releases, analysts’ reports and so on. There is simply no excuse for not knowing enough about any customer to initiate a basic conversation about how you and your company can help them.

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