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Smarter change

Understanding what a client is really asking

When you deal with clients – either selling a job or managing a project – you have to be able to answer the question behind the question.

This means you have to be able to answer the questions the clients don’t even ask, but really want to know.

It may sound like magic or mind reading, and yet there’s very little that’s mystical about it. It just involves noticing who the client is and how they are in the world, and tailoring your communication to meet their unspoken needs. This article sets out some of the ways to discover what those needs are.

There’s a question behind their question

Studies of questions asked in training situations show that people of different thinking styles – or filters – tend to ask similar questions. When you combine this with a second issue – that the problem the client discussing with you is rarely the “real” problem – and you can see that discovering the question behind the question is really important.You know the idea – a patient may go see their doctor to ask for painkillers for a recurring sharp pain that radiates down the left arm. A good doctor will check out the other symptoms of a heart attack. The bad doctor gives the client what they want – a painkiller – and then sends them home.

Address the client’s learning style

To get behind questions, we can take something from the mass of research done on how people learn. Why is learning relevant to consulting? It’s relevant because it deals with how people understand and absorb information – and in consulting, communicating information is a big part of the business. Communicating any idea is a lot more successful if we tailor our communication to the recipient’s learning style.

Here’s an example. Bernice McCarthy’s research on learning styles suggests that people learn (and teach) in different ways. She summarises these as:

  • the Why learner – needs a relevant motivation or reason for learning or doing something
  • the What learner – focuses on data and provides their own motivation for learning or doing
  • the How learner – focuses on putting things into practice, on procedure, for learning and doing
  • the What If learner – takes motivation, content and process as given, and engages with the consequences or implications of what they’re learning or doing

Now, let’s look at a hypothetical Why style client. People with this learning style preference need to understand the motivation for learning (or doing, or understanding) something – if they have a good enough reason, then they will sit through quite a lot to get there.

To get this type of client to buy in to change, to buy into a model, or to just buy your services, you have to work out what they see as a good enough reason. Working out motivation can be tricky. Check out this article on motivation .

What happens if a BPR consultant is dealing with a Why client, and the consultant’s preferred learning style is What? To explain a restructure the consultant relies on lots of data, quoting new department responsibilities and reporting lines. The client doesn’t get it, and asks, “Explain this restructure to me again”. The consultant does, again relying on data. And the next day the same question recurs, in another guise, because the consultant isn’t answering the real question – Why do I need to restructure – what will it give me? The question the consultant is answering is “What is the nature of this restructure?”

So Why-type clients could be asking a lot of questions like “Could you explain it to me again, this idea of restructuring”. The clients themselves won’t know that they need to know why they need to restructure – if only consultants answered the questions clients really wanted answered, we’d all have happy clients. Unfortunately, it requires the consultant to know how people understand things and to do some second-guessing about their clients.

Recurrent misunderstandings like this are common when a consultant of one learning style is working with a client of another. It’s isn’t confined to Why-What learners.

All this means if a consultant can’t understand their client’s thinking process, then the consultant may give away their methodology by explaining its detail unnecessarily. Or they’d be constantly justifying their methodology. Or they’d spend time re-phrasing presentations and re-hashing data to prove something to the client that they don’t really need to.

But when the consultant is an expert in handling people as well as in their topic of information technology or strategy or finance or marketing, that’s when the client is happy before, during and after the project, real change happens, and repeat business comes your way.

For more information on asking questions visit my blog

And try out this post from Seth Godin: But what is the question for?

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