Asking questions in a client interview is critical and essential. But asking the wrong or naïve question will get you thrown out the door. Asking questions without a good interview structure will convince your prospect you are a new consultant and are unfamiliar with their situations or problems.
Never ask naïve questions you should have researched before the meeting like,
- "So, tell me about your business?”
- “Who are your competitors/customers/industry?”
- “Is this product critical to your division?”
Questions like that reveal you haven’t taken any time to research the client or prospect. Why should the client or prospect spend time answering a question you could have found with a little research?
You also need to ask interview questions within a proven structure. The blog, The Best Interview Structure for Selling Consulting Services, shows you a proven structure for selling consulting services. As a quick review, there are three parts to a sales interview for consulting services,
5Ws and One H Questions
Who, What, Where, When, Why and How are prompts to remind you of the questions you want to ask.
Consultative Selling as a Conversation Structure
Consultative selling is natural to most consultants. It’s structure is perfect as a larger format to contain SPIN and the 5Ws and One H.
- Research the niche and probable situation before the first meeting
- Build rapport and trust
- Ask Wide and Deep questions to understand the scope and depth
- Understand the problem and needs before providing a value solution
SPIN Selling as a Question Structure
SPIN Selling works well as a structure for questions in stage 3 of Consultative Selling, asking questions to understand the scope and depth of the problem. Questions in the SPIN structure follow the order,
Questions for the Situation Phase
Begin the Situation phase by asking Wide questions that probe the scope and width of the situation. Look for interconnecting or related areas that could impact the situation. Then start asking Deep questions in areas that look important.
I’ve never known this to be a linear process, especially later in the Implication and Needs/Payoff stages. Your conversation might wander touching on different Wide aspects, then go Deep to dive into details in one area.
Writing down what you discover is important so you can come back to it in the Implication/Impact Phase. (We teach a special note taking method in the Starting and Building a Thriving Consulting Business course. Your notes can be a treasure chest for later.)
In the Situation phase show you know the situation but need more details so you can give your best insights.
In the Situation phase you want to ask questions like,
- What plans do you have to manage high-tech hiring during the Great Resignation?
- Who services the ________ machines on the ______ product line?
- My research found that your _______ product line brought in $____ last year. But that line is seven years old. What are your plans for new product development?
- Supply chains are down around the world. Are any of your suppliers having trouble? How does that impact the ______ product lines/partners?
- Your department manufactures critical components for the ______ product line but your plant is a long way off normal supply routes. As prices get more competitive, could the parent company move your department?
- The Business Journal had an article that you recently bought new storage facilities on Highway 5. Is this part of an expansion/distribution plan?
Questions for the Problem Phase
Decades ago there was a lot of hype about feature-driven selling. Some salesreps would get carried away talking about features.
Consultants don’t talk about “product features”. Instead, consultants get carried away talking about their skills, their unique processes and methods, or their degrees and certifications.
The client or prospect doesn’t care! They care about their problem, fixing the problem, and increasing value for the business.
In the Problem phase you need to discover the problems your client or prospect are concerned with. This is also an excellent phase to use a Wide then Deep approach to look for related or interconnected causes and problems. Solving those interconnected or deeper problems will help the client and add additional value to your consulting services.
In the Problem phase you want to ask questions like,
- What processes are the biggest obstacle to better performance?
- Global Climate Change is forecast to impact some of your major ports in just the next three years. How confident are you in your near- and long-term plans?
- How has this problem impacted you personally?
- Who has reasons for keeping this system the way it is?
- How often has this happened? How long does it impact your output?
- Consumers are demanding greater sustainability. How will your products be more sustainable and recyclable?
- Are your current new hires meeting your expectations?
- From the article in the Wall Street Journal it looks like the ABC Company is entering your market. Do you know what they are planning? What will you do?
- The cost of Byzantium 452 is forecast to go through the roof now that Berzerkistan is under a new authoritarian ruler. What problems will this cause?
Questions for the Implication Phase
In the Situation and Problem phases you and the client or prospect map out the jungle they live in.
You want to work with the client or prospect to find all the jungle paths, new or old, find the watering holes and fruit trees, and put bridges over the streams. (Oh yeah! In our brainstorming we even came up with the idea to damn a few streams and start raising fish.)
The client has been living in pain in this jungle for a long time. You need to help them find new ways to live and relieve their pain.
You and the client need to brainstorm and follow chains of consequences to see new causal factors, new consequences, forecast implications, identify impacts, and new opportunities.
Here is where you work together to discover impact, solutions, and value. And this is where the client or prospect begins selling themselves.
(Personally, I love this phase, discovering hidden consequences and opportunities. It’s like brain fireworks. But don’t lose the ideas and names you discover. Keep notes.)
This phase can be depressing if you only look at negative implications and impact. Throughout you may want to hint at the opportunities for value payoff. This will help get the client or prospect look forward to the Needs-Payoff phase.
In the Implications/Impact phase you may want to ask questions like,
- When this system goes down are there other systems or people that are impacted?
- If you redesigned this so it was perfect, what are the top three things it would do better?
- How often do you have to do training and support for this?
- Have you heard what your competitors are doing about this? How does that give them an advantage?
- How have you worked around this so far? How is that working?
- If you could get rid of three bottlenecks, what would they be?
- What is this doing to your people’s morale?
Questions for the Needs-Payoff Phase
This is the Needs-Payoff phase of SPIN selling. In this phase you aren't talking about how you will solve the problems.
You want to talk about what client needs will be satisfied and the value they will get from a solution. Don’t forget to include the additional consequences you probably uncovered in the Implication phase.
It is critical for the client or prospect to come up with their own added values from solving the problems and their impact. They are going to believe their own conclusions far more than they will believe you.
For one large internet content management company I created a robust Excel worksheet that calculated the Return on Investments for clients when they used the content management software. The license for some sales was nearly a million-dollars USD so they needed a valid justification.
The clients would sell themselves. Salesreps would sit with the client’s Chief Marketing Officer, Chief Operations Office, and Chief Finance Officer and show them how to input their own forecasts, costs, and efficiency numbers into the worksheet. They they would calculate their own Return on Investment (ROI). They could even dig into the formulas to validate the financial methods.
The salesrep would leave the worksheet with them to "play with". Clients would then sell themselves with their own estimates of payback. They would enter their own numbers for different scenarios and see what the 3- and 5-year Return on Investment (ROI) rates were. They couldn’t beat the return.
In the Needs-Payoff phase use questions that help your client or prospect create a vision of how much better the business will be after working with you,
- How will solving this ______ problem change output? What will that do to your ability to expand?
- What does solving this problem mean to you personally?
- We’ve found ## ways we can increase your ecommerce sales. Even using the lowest industry estimates how would that impact your department’s numbers?
- Not all the value from these solutions we’ve talked about are revenue. What difference do you think the Environmental, Social, and Governance impact will have on how your brand is viewed by the millennial market and the new ESG push by the Board of Directors?
- The strategic changes we’ve talked about could change your position in the market. What difference would that make in revenue? In employee morale?
What it Takes to Create a Thriving Consulting Business
Learning how to sell consulting services is just part of building a great business.
In the Starting and Building a Thriving Consulting Business course you learn how to create the pillars of a great consulting business,
- Building a Portfolio of High-Quality Clients
- Leveraging Your Expertise into Maximum Income
- Working On Your Business, Not Just in Your Business
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