Outreach … are you asking the right questions?

Out Reach Ask the Right QuestionsNo matter what your title or responsibilities are, you must reach out to customers, clients, vendors, regulatory agencies, job applicants, etc. I believe that it is helpful and useful to have some questions ready for the most common outreach situations. The right question, posed at the right time, can demonstrate that you understand the challenge, get a presentation back on track or allow you to check in on how a contact is feeling.

1. Can we get specific?
One of the most important things you can do is to figure out what a client or contact really wants to know when they ask you a question. Many times they don’t know how to be specific. So they might say, “Tell me about your idea, proposal or products” when they really want to know if you have test your products against a specific defect or implemented a similar proposal under similar circumstances. Be prepared to redirect a broad line of questioning for more detail. Ask “Can we get specific? Is there anything particular you would like to know about my proposal or products?” You can always move off of this stance, but more times than not, the person you’re questioning will answer in a way that helps you understand what’s going on in their view.
2. Is there a specific question?
Have you ever had a contact or prospect ramble on about what’s wrong with everything in their company and perhaps the world as a whole, only to then stop and ask you to solve it? The challenge with trying to advance an idea or a product into this situation is that it’s a lot like trying to wade through a pond without any idea how deep the water is. Try flipping the script back to the contact, prospect or client, by posing a question like “What specifically would you like me to address?” It’s the only way you’re going to get them to focus on the matter at hand. Instead of trying to frame your answer to respond to a giant problem or issue, ask them to break it down for you.
3. Why is that a problem?
Many times people will tell you all about what they perceive as problems without shedding any light on what it’s costing them or why they want to solve it. Your objective is to help them clarify and articulate the situation for you. If they aren’t motivated by this question, or can’t answer it clearly, they can’t, won’t be motivated or ready to solve it either.
4. What does that mean?
The moment your contact, client or prospect begins using clichés and industry buzzwords, call them out by asking them to explain that jargon in layman’s terms. If they’re using “synergy” for example, ask them “What would synergy look like in this case?” This will force the contact, client or prospect to clarify their understanding of their language and actually link it to their own business. Further, if you truly don’t understand something they are explaining, ask them to go deeper. Most people actually love to explain what they do and you’ll look good for listening closely enough to actually know when to ask these questions.
5. How do you measure success?
If you are in sales, you are selling a product or solution on the basis that it’s good for the prospect, without knowing how the prospect is measuring what’s good for them. When you understand what a buyer’s objectives are and how they are measured, you can frame your value in those terms. This is tricky and not always obvious. Many times, a buyer is mostly concerned with the things that show up on their annual review and you’ll benefit from understanding that. For example, if your software can save certain operations 60 minutes a day and you know that could add up to substantial savings on labor costs. But your prospect isn’t that worried about labor cost savings because his big goal this year is to reduce implementation time. This kind of insight will be useful to have.
6. What is the approval or purchasing process in your organization?
Probably the most important line of questioning in many situations centers on the approval or purchasing process. Your contact, client or prospect may not have the ability to reveal all of the layers and hoops, but you must understand what their role is within larger organization.
7. How does that make you feel?
If you get your contacts, clients or prospects to reveal how they feel about a problem or potential opportunity, you then hold a measure of emotional control in the influence equation. At the very least, this question will give you a gauge on the importance of the situation. If they don’t seem to be too concerned with a solution, they may not be as far along in the decision, implantation or buying process. If they react strongly, with anger or fear regarding a certain problem, your value will be recognized for helping them quickly figure out a useful solution.
8. What would you do if this were solved?
Problems and challenges take people away from the things they are much more excited about. Figuring out what a potential contact, client or buyer would rather do than solving a given problem gives you some insight into what’s important to them.
9. What did we agree to today?
Always reconfirm commitments of any kind at the end of every meeting. Will you be scheduling a new meeting with them, or sending over a proposal based on today’s conversation? If you agree to send a proposal, do some initial fact-finding or forward some research as soon as possible. Also, restate any commitment the contact, client or prospect makes.

Usually, you will want to work with two or three of these questions, rephrase them in your normal conversational manner and have them ready. Depending on how you work, create an electronic document that will be avail to you at all times on your laptop, tablet or smartphone. By the way, 3 x 5 cards still work very well. Great questioning skills and the ability to interpret the answers you hear is one of the core differentiators between good and exceptional communicators.

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James E. McClain is the author of Successful Career Development: A Game Plan, the book upon which some of our training programs are based. He has over 30 years' experience as a corporate HR executive, small business owner with ongoing experience in career development and as a college instructor. His educational background includes a B.S. and Masters degrees Education and Certification in Financial Planning. Our promise is that "you can pay more for training but you can not buy better training." The mission is to deliver the most effective and cost effective training and development programs.

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