Ask, Don’t Tell: Using Power Questions to Create Clients for Life

By Andrew Sobel, co-author of Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others

NameThe CEO of a $12 billion company summed it up neatly when he told me, “When someone walks into my office and is trying to market to me or sell something, I can always tell how experienced he or she is by the quality of the questions they ask.” I’ve heard the same message from hundreds of c-suite executives: the people who really impress them are the ones who ask the most thought-provoking questions.
You’ve heard that there are no “silver bullets” in business—no magic technique that will dramatically accelerate your success. That may be true, but the ability to ask good questions comes close.
A good power question helps you uncover a prospect’s most urgent needs. It cuts through the noise and gets right to the heart of the issue. It uncovers higher-level goals and aspirations. It helps reframe the problem and paves the way for your solution. It creates enthusiasm and interest. And it shows, in the most convincing way possible, that you’re thoughtful and smart.
Power questions are a key tool for building clients and customers for life. By helping people arrive at their own answers, you end up with greater commitment to your advice and solutions. You can use power questions to win over a new client, and then to deepen your relationship with that individual over time. Let’s look more closely at how to do this.  
Build your own Credibility
When you first meet with a prospect, how do you establish your credibility and understand their goals and needs? Our natural tendency is to do this by telling—by describing our company, our rankings and awards, and the uniqueness of our offerings. We try to talk them into believing how great we are. But these efforts fall flat. This excessive “telling” comes across as boastful and salesy. What’s more, when we do ask questions they are often weak, overused clichés like “What keeps you up at night?” Lazy questions like this only annoy people.
The best way to build trust in your competence is to ask credibility-building questions.  These are questions that implicitly demonstrate your experience while encouraging the client to talk about their issues. This is what the CEO was talking about.
It requires good upfront research and planning to develop strong, credibility-building questions. Your questions will vary based on your particular client and industry, but they should sound like these:

  • “As I look at my other customers across the industry, they are all trying to convert fixed costs to variable costs. Some are focusing on a technology solution, others are streamlining their business processes, and a few are integrating both approaches. How would you characterize your own efforts? What do you find is working or not working for you as you move from a capital expenditure to an operating expenditure model?
  • “How are you reacting to the new reporting requirements [i.e., to a trend or a new regulation]? Several of my largest clients have taken a wait-and-see attitude, but others are already conducting in-depth assessments…”
  • “Your CEO’s speech to last month’s industry conference certainly put a stake in the ground in terms of your growth aspirations…how is this going to impact your own area?”

A credibility-boosting question, in short, explores the client’s issues while implicitly demonstrating your knowledge, experience, and preparation for the meeting.
Understand the Client’s True Agenda
A second essential objective with a prospect is to understand their issues. I like to call this their agenda. Every executive has an agenda of three to five critical business goals, needs, or priorities. They also have an agenda of personal priorities. Your job is to explore, understand, and add value to this agenda. I once asked one of my own clients, who was the most successful rainmaker at his company, what his secret was. “Andrew,” he told me, “in my shirt pocket I have a folded sheet of paper. On it are the names of all my key clients. Next to each name I’ve written that executive’s most important goals. My job in life is to help them accomplish those goals.
Remember, when you can connect to and support a higher-level goal, you get closer to being a trusted advisor. When you are focused on tactical needs only, you are an expert for hire–a tradeable commodity.
Depending on how much you know about the client, and how bold you are, there are many different types of agenda-setting questions you can ask. One of the most direct is, “How will you be evaluated at the end of the year by your leadership? What metrics will be used?” The answer to this question will very quickly reveal your client’s agenda. It will spell out what they are most focused on.
Here are some additional, illustrative agenda setting questions you can adapt and use for your own particular set of clients:

  • “Where will your future growth come from?”
  • “How will you decide whether or not to…(make an important decision)”
  • “What organizational or operational capabilities do you need to strengthen in order to support your future strategy?”
  • “You’ve cut costs substantially—where do you believe future improvements in performance will come from?”
  • “If you had additional resources, which opportunities or areas would you invest them in?”
  • “In order to achieve your aspirations, is there anything you need to stop doing or deemphasize?”
  • “As you think about the future of your business, what are you most excited about? What are you most concerned about?”

Remember, you add value in a first meeting by being thought-provoking and helping your prospect think differently about their issues—not just by giving them facts or information.

Forge Deeper Relationships—The Kind that Last

Once you have acquired a new client or customer, the next challenge is to create a personal connection and deepen the relationship. Again, the right power questions will help you do this.  I like to ask what I call passion questions and depth questions.

Passion questions help you understand what the other person is really excited about in life. They enable you learn what gets them up in the morning. For example, “Why do you do what you do?” is an excellent passion question. It’s simple but profound. One of my clients was a managing partner in a large accounting firm. When I asked him this question, he replied, cynically, “Andrew, do you know what we actually do?” He was basically saying that accounting is boring and that he only did it to earn a living. But when I persisted and asked the question several times, he became thoughtful and shared with me some stories from his childhood, how he got into the profession, and what he loved most about his work. Our relationship was just a bit deeper and more personal after that conversation.  

Other passion questions include “What in life gives you the greatest fulfillment?” and “You’ve achieved so much in your career—what else would you like to accomplish?”
Depth questions are questions that help you learn more about the person. The simplest depth question is, “Can you tell me more?” Another good one is “How did you get started?” I was once at an awards dinner, and found myself talking with the CEO of WalMart USA. He had one million employees reporting to him! Did I try to show him that I was smart? Tell him all about my books? No! He was born in South America, and I simply asked, “How did you get your start? How did you get from the small town you were raised in to being CEO?” He smiled when I asked this, and talked passionately about his career and life story. The subsequent conversation lasted 45 minutes, and we connected in a very personal, intimate way.  
Here are just a few other power questions that I have found useful in building and deepening relationships with clients:

  • When a prospect is acting standoffish and aloof: “What in particular interested you in meeting with me today?”
  • When no agenda has been clearly set: “From your perspective, what would the most valuable use of our time together?
  • If you sense the other person is disengaged or distracted:What’s the most important thing we should be talking about this morning?”
  • When you want to challenge the client’s solution and understand the underlying issue or goal: “Why do you want to do that?”
  • If you have gotten a conversation off on the wrong foot entirely (or started arguing with your spouse or partner): “Do you mind if we start over?” (This also works beautifully if you’ve started arguing with your spouse or partner!)
  • To get someone to reflect on their role and their effectiveness in it: “What parts of your job do you wish you could spend more time on, and which parts do you wish you could deemphasize or stop doing?”

Use credibility-building questions and agenda-setting questions early on in your relationships. Then, use passion questions and depth questions to connect on a personal level. Be bold! Remember that many of the greatest figures in history were inveterate question-askers: Socrates, Jesus, Newton, Einstein, and Drucker, just to name a few. With a little effort and thought, you can become adept at asking power questions. The result will be dramatically transformed relationships that will enrich your career and your personal life.

Download free Power Tools for Power Questions on Andrew's homepage. You'll find videos, checklists, and question lists to help you build deep relationships with clients, colleagues, and others.

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Andrew Sobel helps companies and individuals build their clients for life. Andrew is the most widely published author in the world on business relationships, and he consults to major services firms worldwide. Andrew is the co-author of Power Questions as well as the author of the business bestsellers Clients for Life, Making Rain, and All for One. His articles and work have appeared in publications such as the New York Times, US Today, and the Harvard Business Review. He was formerly a Senior Vice President at Gemini Consulting, and for the last 15 years he has led his own consulting firm, Andrew Sobel Advisors, Inc. He can be reached at andrewsobel.com, where you can download a free set of Power Tools to help you get better at asking Power Questions.

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