This is a key skill for any professional but is particularly critical for consultants. If you are reading this and think “well then this is not for me” then think again. Any role you are playing within a Procurement or Supply Chain organization automatically qualifies you as a consultant because your job is to satisfy the needs of your entire organization as a shared service provider. We actually ask our Procurement / Supply Chain clients to think of their groups as internal consulting practices. In that context, this discussion relates directly to you 😊!
This article in HBR “The Art of Asking Great Questions”, shared some thoughts from a set of very senior consultants who use some very effective techniques with their clients. We have all worked with consultants that puff out their chest and talk non-stop to let you know how smart they are. I personally find this to be VERY annoying and a big turn-off. Having the finesse to ask the right questions can still result in exhibiting your expertise AND will make your client feel HEARD. Having a “conversation” with your client will get you much more information than giving them a lecture. “The art of asking great questions isn’t just restricted to consulting. In any industry, people with this skill are seen as more empathetic. They also lower the threshold for others to speak up, increase the quality of decisions, and foster collective intelligence. Whether you’re a marketing associate, a project manager, a freelance illustrator, or something else — a great question can help you learn more about your task, unlock hidden opportunities, deliver better results, and mitigate unforeseen risks.”
Three common themes emerged from the article:
1) A great question should demonstrate that you’re thoroughly prepared for the conversation. In other words, do your homework. In this day and age with all the public information available to us, it is not that hard. If you are well prepared, you will be able to make your client feel respected and in turn they will be more “inclined to share information that drives the relationship forward and makes it easier for you to do your job well.”
2) A great question illustrates the expertise you bring to the table, without showing it off. Illustrating your expertise is critical. A client, for example, needs to know if they can trust you with their business. A hiring manager needs to know you’re qualified for the role. A peer needs to feel confident in your skills (and so on). You don’t need to give a lofty monologue to show what you bring to the table. If you want to avoid being that annoying, arrogant consultant that we all hate then keep it brief and impactful, casually referencing past work or skills related to the question you plan to pose.
3) A great question invites others to deepen or broaden their thinking, and challenge held beliefs. “Asking questions that broaden or deepen the other persons thinking and challenge held beliefs will likely be reciprocated with loyalty and trust”. This is by far my favorite technique and usually the most effective. Challenging needs to be respectful but firm because most clients are working with consultants because they know that they don’t have all the answers. This will open up a broader conversation and will most likely lead to you helping them solve their problem.
Many of us have anxiety about being able to say the right thing at the right time. Being able to ask the right questions will help you to demonstrate your expertise, get your client comfortable and exhibit that you are listening.
Let us know what you think and join in the conversation . . . . . .