The Beautiful Questions of Value

LinkedIn Article by Tim Williams
January 31, 2018

Most conversations between buyers and sellers start with the wrong question. Buyers are likely to prematurely ask “How much?” Your job is to postpone the answer and ask a beautiful question.

A beautiful question, says writer Warren Berger, is "an ambitious inquiry that has the power to shift the way we think about something." Even in a buyer-seller dialogue, the questions you ask are just as important as the answers you give.

Berger, an accomplished journalist who has spent much of his career profiling successful professional service firms, observes that the most prosperous business leaders tend to be the most expert questioners. They have not only studied the art of the question but have learned that the answer to most "How" questions should be another question.

Not "How?" but "Why?"

When your prospective client asks "How many hours will it take your firm to complete this project?" the most effective response is not "Approximately 120," but rather "Can you provide a little more dimension to the problem you're trying to solve?" If you accept the premise that your clients should be paying for your expertise, not your time, your charge is to construct insightful questions that transcend the cursory inquiries included in the "discovery" process of most professional firms.

Toyota credits much of its historical success to the practice of “The Five Why’s.” Company founder Sackihi Toyoda famously insisted that his managers ask “Why?” five times in succession as a means of getting to the root of a manufacturing problem. This same attitude and methodology can pay powerful dividends in knowledge work.

When ad agencies interrogate a new client, the answer to the point-blank question "What are your objectives?" is almost always "Sales." That's not very helpful. Truthfully (and most marketers admit this), these organizations have not thought very deeply about their objectives. Feeling pressure from their superiors, managers on the front lines of marketing are primed to jump straight to lists of deliverables. Brands are too eager to start their projects, and agencies are too eager to please their clients. The result is bad for both parties: the client gets a suboptimal solution and the firm fails to capture the true value of the engagement.

Deep interrogation

The essence of being a professional is solving, not doing. This requires a commitment to a much more proactive approach to investigating a client's challenges and obstacles to business success. Writing in the book Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play, authors Mahan Khalsa and Randy Illig propose probing both sides of the value coin. First, “Peel for gain” by evaluating the results impact. What is the real payoff if success is achieved? Then “Peel for pain” — the problem impact — by walking your client through the question of what it costs the organization to have this unsolved problem. 

Business consultant and author Alan Weiss a useful list of queries for identifying the value we create for our clients, such as:

  • Ideally, how would conditions improve as a result of this project?
  • What would be the difference in the organization if you were successful?
  • How would the customer be better served?
  • How would your boss recognize the improvement?
  • How would employees notice the difference?
  • How will you be able to prove a level of improvement to others?
  • What if you did nothing? What would be the impact?

Weiss also provides an illuminating example of translating the ambitions of an assignment into the value that will likely be created for the organization. In the example, a financial services company is seeking a consultant to help them improve their ability to recruit top talent. The objectives of this project are to attract the best graduates at the top schools as well as the best of the seasoned veterans from the industry. The measures of success include specific metrics related to how many of the top schools invite the company to recruit on campus and how many unsolicited resumes are received from top people at competitive companies. But its’s the articulation of value that makes for a compelling proposal. Successfully executed, the consultant's recommended program should be able to:

1) Lower the cost of attracting talent, estimated at 15-25%. 2) Lower employee turnover, estimated at about $400,000 per year. 3) Lower client turnover, an estimated savings of $3 million in lost commissions. 4) Improve business development, estimated at a minimum of $3 million in additional commissions. 

Contrast this with the proposals created by most professional firms, usually a predictable recitation of "what," "when," and "how much" -- but only a cursory treatment of "why." They dutifully outline the scope of work, but almost always overlook the most important component of all: a section labeled “Scope of Value.” It’s this missing element that will make all the difference in your firm's ability to get paid what you’re really worth.

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