I’m excited to launch the first of a four-part series of The Friedman File articles on client and market research — a topic near and dear to my heart. Those of you who know me and/or have worked with me also know that I love asking questions, especially open-ended ones. Do you know what an open-ended question is? (Hint: it’s not the type of question I just asked.)

Asking questions, and even more to the point, having your primary motivator be curiosity rather than a specific outcome, is the lifeblood of development — be it personal, professional, career, market, or business development. Any “Business Development 101” class has, at its foundation, the value of asking probing questions rather than talking. As Steven Covey writes in his widely read book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “seek first to understand, then be understood.”

In my upcoming series, I will address:

  • The application of powerful open-ended questions in the business development process (today’s issue)
  • Client research — a two-part series focusing on this often misunderstood and underutilized tool in your firm’s practice management arsenal
  • Actual case studies illustrating the value of primary market research in market intelligence, partnering, and lead generation

There is a commonly held belief (particularly among project personnel in the A/E/C and environmental consulting industries) that in a business development context, it’s more important to know what to say (or have the right answer) rather than to know what to ask. But asking influencers and decision-makers the right questions at the right time can yield many more benefits. For starters, it enables you to:

  • Assess needs, as well as opportunities for your firm to address these needs
  • Determine / reaffirm whether the current / prospective client is a good cultural fit for your firm
  • Determine what the individual knows about your firm and his / her impressions
  • Better understand the client’s decision-making process
  • Fine-tune pursuit and proposal strategy
  • Gather competitive intelligence (e.g., which competitors have worked with this organization, and how they are perceived)

And the icing on the cake? Having an arsenal of questions to ask should reduce one’s anxiety about what to say. Instead, responses can be reserved and targeted for challenges and needs articulated by the client/prospect. With these points in mind, what follows is a list of questions (primarily open-ended), segmented by business objective. I encourage you and your colleagues to try them out, when appropriate to the opportunity / circumstance. A helpful reminder: be prepared to listen carefully! It’s human nature to focus one’s energy on the next question to ask instead of the response provided.

To gain a better understanding of your clients’ universe:

  • Tell me more about your role and responsibilities
  • What are the most challenging issues you’re grappling with?
  • In your opinion, what are the compelling emerging trends and technologies impacting your organization / industry?
  • Which publications and professional associations do you rely on to stay current with industry trends, drivers, etc.?

Gathering pre-proposal intelligence:

  • What are the most important things to know about this project?
  • How will you define / measure success?
  • Who else are you working with inside your company / organization?
  • Who else are you working with outside your company / organization?
  • What are your sources of funding?
  • What other architects / engineers / consultants / contractors are you considering for this work? (Remember, if you don’t ask, you won’t get!)

Lead pursuit/follow-up:

  • Who else is involved in the decision-making process?
  • How and when should we follow up with you?

Identifying future opportunities:

  • How do you see your industry changing in the next five years?
  • How do you see your company / organization changing in the next five years?
  • How do you see your needs changing in the next five years?
  • How can we better meet your changing needs?

I hope these examples are helpful, and that they generate ideas for other questions customized to your firm, its services, and clients. Please send me your faves (rich@friedmanpartners.com; 508-276-1101), and I’ll include them in a future issue.