What is the difference between these two commercial activities:

1.  Finding out what someone wants and then satisfying that requirement.

2.  Finding out what someone thinks they want and then discovering why they want it, what will happen if they get it (or don’t get it), whether they really need it in the first place, and who is asking for it?

mindBoth conversations are possible when you talk to a potential client who says the equivalent of “my head hurts.”

I would crudely characterise Response 1) as Selling.  “I’ve got some headache tablets in my bag, that’ll be £10 please.”  In fact you could argue that this isn’t even selling, it is order taking.

Response 2) is Consulting.  “Which bit of your head hurts?  How much does it hurt?  How long has it been hurting?  What have you tried so far?  Where else hurts?….(20 minutes later) …..I think we need to book you in for a brain scan.”

Many organisations are trying to be better at the consultative sale:  if they can understand customers better and develop a closer relationship with them, they can keep the competition at arm’s length and get out of the usual arm wrestle over price and more into a discussion over value.  They want to get into bed with their client, and most clients prefer to sleep with one partner at a time.

One of the biggest enemies of the consultative approach is that the discussion takes longer, and we are all in a hurry these days.  It’s also more complicated, can involve solutions we haven’t thought of, and the solution can be out of our comfort zone.  It also requires the ability to keep an open and enquiring mind, which is hard if you know too much and have been doing the job for too long.

Far better to be a 5 year old, a topic on which I have blogged before.

Here are some questions which can transform the dialogue and move us from Selling to Consulting.  They’re not the only ones, but you get the jist.  When you ask them you have to have established rapport and you need to be relaxed and in listening (not telling) mode.  Settle into your seat, ask if it’s OK to explore the background a little more, and fire away (not necessarily in this order):

1.  Why are you asking for this?

You can dress this one up in various ways if you think it is too direct. “It would help to know more about where this requirement came from” is the same question posed as a statement.

2.  What will happen if this works, and also if it doesn’t?

On this one get them to paint in glorious technicolor their vision of success and what it will feel like.  And on the fear of failure question, look for signs of their eyes filling with tears.  Get them to tell you what will happen to them personally if it fails.  Empathise.  Show you care (and don’t try and fake it).  Play it back to them to show you understand.

3.  What do I/we need to be aware of?

You have asked them about things you think you need to know.  What about the stuff that hasn’t occurred to you?  You know there are some unknowns, so might as well ask about them – that way the client gets it all out on the table, and ends up feeling they are talking to someone who gets the whole picture.  They want that:  all humans want to be understood.  They’ll love you more for that question.

4.  What’s your budget?

So many people are scared of this question.  It’s a no brainer if you think about it.

They want you to propose something they can afford:  if you don’t they have to go and find someone else who can help, which is a pain.  You, similarly, don’t want to waste your time pursuing work that a client can’t afford.  So it’s in both your interests to have a sense of what is feasible.  To further my headache analogy, if the client only has £10 in the world, you are better off prescribing Paracetamol as opposed to privately funded brain surgery.

5.  What haven’t I asked you that I should have?

This is similar to question 3, but a little wider.  It’s your safety net, catching any other issues that haven’t been covered.  In my headache analogy again, this one ends elicits the critical missing piece of the jigsaw:

“Perhaps we should discuss whether the 10 Snickers bars I have for breakfast every morning on my new high fat diet might be relevant to this.”

I call this a Golden Nugget. It lies at the root of client requirements, and if you get to understand it better or quicker than the competition, you win the business as well as the trust you’ll need for an ongoing collaborative relationship with your clients.

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