We described how, when it comes to critical conversations with clients or prospects, when the client offers their perspective, consultants just cannot help themselves. The urge is too great. They stop listening and shut down the conversation with: “I understand”.
Saying “I understand” too quickly is a problem for consultants and their firms for several reasons. For example, it can make consultants seem arrogant and put an end to opportunities before they have even begun.
But above all, saying, “I understand” too quickly suggests that the conversation is all about you (the consultant) and not about them, the client.
In the top performing, tier-one consulting firms, we expect to see consultants take an altogether different approach, to take a step back in critical conversations and admit:
“Actually, I don’t understand yet, tell me more.”
Contrary to showing weakness, this alternative approach demonstrates confidence, authority, humility and respect to the client, opens the conversation to explore alternative opportunities and gives the consultant the chance to earn the right to offer a point of view or recommendation.
This strategy requires bravery and self-assuredness, but it also requires an understanding of how to undertake an effective ‘enquiry strategy’.
What do we mean by an effective enquiry strategy?
We mean that when a client offers you, the consultant, a perspective or statement, you are able to ask the right questions to gain a better understanding of what the statement actually represents.
But perhaps more importantly, you can also help the client to gain more clarity of the situation through your questioning strategy.
Good questioning and good listening is not about being empathetic or ‘being nice’ – although empathy is critical in all client conversations – it’s about seeking to understand the situation better yourself and equally, helping the client to better understand the situation so that you create a level platform from which you can offer a recommendation or point of view.
In effect, the consultant acts as a ‘thinking Partner’, similar to a therapist or a doctor.
For example, if you went to your doctor with a problem, she wouldn’t just tell you what’s wrong with you from your immediate outline of your symptoms.
Likewise she wouldn’t just ask you questions because she’s being kind or empathetic (hopefully these traits are a given!). Instead, she would ask you questions and listen to your answers intently in order to help you better understand the situation and enable her to come to the right diagnosis and prescribe the right medication or treatment.
Often, the reason consultants rush to saying “I understand” is they’re simply not sure how to undertake an enquiry strategy. They might not know that calibrated questioning is appropriate during a critical conversation or simply haven’t been trained in how to ask the right questions.
Thankfully, we have designed a simple tool for consultants to carry out effective enquiry strategies in critical client conversations. The originally named: Enquiry Strategy Remote Control.
We also provide detailed instructions on how this tool could be used and troubleshoot the most common reasons why it might not work in some consulting firms.
THE ENQUIRY STRATEGY REMOTE CONTROL
- The ‘Enquiry Strategy remote control’ is specifically designed to help consultants and professional advisors undertake an efficient enquiry strategy with a client and to stop them saying “I understand” too quickly.
- The remote control will help consultants better explore a client’s statement.
- Consultants DO NOT have to push all the buttons before pressing the ‘OK’ button.
- Some buttons will be more important than others depending on the client’s situation.
Cause (Why?): Press this button to determine the reason for the client’s statement.
Sample questions include: Why have you made this statement? What are the main causes? Who are the main protagonists?
Impact (So what): Press this button to determine what impact the client’s statement has on their business.
Sample questions include: Where does this scenario play out? How does it affect your business? Who will gain/lose from this situation?
Clarify (zoom in): Use this button to clarify any points the client has already made or any perspectives you have started to formulate in your mind.
Sample questions include: What does your statement actually mean? So what I think you mean is..? If I understand you correctly…? Could you just clarify this for me…?
Context (zoom out): Use this button to get a better understanding of the bigger picture.
Sample questions include: What is the bigger picture? Is this endemic to your culture?
OK (“I understand”): You press this button when you are ready to offer the client your recommendations or point of view.
PLEASE NOTE: You SHOULD NOT push this button before you have considered all of the other directional buttons of enquiry.
A WORKED EXAMPLE:
Consider the following client statement given to a consultant:
“Marketing don’t speak to sales teams”
In this scenario, this is how a consultant might use the remote control to undertake an effective enquiry:
Cause (Why?): Why are they not speaking? What are the main causes?
Context (zoom out): Are there other teams that don’t speak? Is this a ‘cultural’ tenet?
Impact (So what?): Where does this play out? How does this affect your business?
Clarify (zoom in): Could you give me some specific examples where this happens? In what way do they not speak?
TROUBLESHOOTING – THE REMOTE IS NOT WORKING:
You may discover that the remote control might not work as effectively as you hoped, and your consultants continue to rush to “I understand” too quickly.
In our experience, if the remote control is not being used correctly, it is usually for one of these reasons:
At an individual consultant level:
- Your consultants are in a rush to offer a solution: time pressure means they want to shut down the conversation quickly and therefore stop listening.
- Your consultants have a need to impress: by speaking rather than trying to understand the consultant thinks she is more likely to impress than when the reverse is true.
- Your consultants believe listening is a sign of weakness: they might think that listening is passive and represents a sign of weakness.
- Your consultants lack the confidence to ask questions: they choose to back away from an enquiry strategy in case it gives the impression of a ‘lack of knowledge’.
- Your consultants are nervous that asking questions will have a negative effect: they worry that by asking questions they might come across as accusatory, hostile, aggressive, patronising or overly interrogative.
At a firm-wide level:
We have also found that on occasion an effective enquiry strategy is not followed due to problems systemic to the consulting firm, and not as a result of problems at an individual level.
In this scenario, the consulting firm’s culture does not encourage curiosity, imagination, critical thinking or creativity among their consultants in critical conversations. This could arise for several reasons but two are perhaps more commonly found than others:
- The firm’s predominant performance metrics: If performance is measured by ‘activity levels’ then consultants are not encouraged to take their time in critical conversations as they need to get back to their chargeable activities.
- The firm has a list of fixed ‘solutions’: If there is little flexibility in what can be offered to clients, then consultants will rush to end the conversation because they already know what they’re going to suggest to the client before the conversation has even begun!
PLEASE NOTE: In all of these situations above, the only way to correct the situation is to encourage your consultants to learn, practise, develop and refine the skills needed to undertake an effective enquiry strategy and provide them with effective training on how to use the ‘remote control’ during critical client conversations.
FOR ALL OTHER ENQUIRIES PLEASE CONTACT THE MANUFACTURER:
Should you have any further questions on how to use the Enquiry Strategy Remote Control in your professional services firm, please contact the manufacturer – The Openside Group – directly on: +44 (0)1829 770977 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Many consultants are still too quick to rush to “I understand” when offered a perspective by clients and prospective clients.
As outlined previously, this presumption of understanding, and the rushed, generic recommendations it triggers, can have a negative effect on the client relationship and performance of the firm as a whole.
That’s why in the top performing consulting firms they train their people to take a step back, adopt a curious mindset, admit “actually I don’t understand yet” and then undertake an effective enquiry strategy.
This effective enquiry strategy allows their consultants to get a better understanding of what the client statement represents and crucially, help the client gain clarity of the situation through detailed, insightful questioning.
Only once this enquiry strategy has been undertaken has the consultant earned the right to deliver her point of view or recommendation based on a mutual understanding of the situation.
For those firms within which undertaking an effective enquiry strategy is not commonplace among their consultants, we have created the ‘Enquiry Strategy Remote Control’.
We hope you find it useful.