Asking the Right Questions Can Mean The Difference Between Success and Failure


Often there is such a focus on running a business, closing a deal or reaching an objective that attention is given to immediate outcomes. The result of this sort of intense focus may cause a manager to miss important cues that affect the bigger picture.

I have a friend that has been very successful in the business world. He and I have started several businesses together and enjoyed some success. I have learned however to not only listen to his words but to try to understand the true nature of his intentions.  I have learned for example that when he is asked to participate in a business venture and he acts very interested and responds to the request for participation by saying “Let me study this” or “We’ll see”, he means “No”.

This may be a desire to be pleasant and courteous rather than giving a clear answer. I find this to be true in many business encounters. I have been in countless sales calls where the potential client gave what could be considered buying signals and asked for more information to help in the decision making process. I have seen good sales people put a very high probability that the sale would close based on this kind of customer feedback.

This can result in overly optimistic sales projections, which can have all sorts of negative consequences for an organization.

Unfortunately this unclear communication style can be used in other ways. For example, one business associate said that he was approached by one of the world’s largest manufacturers of a new electrical product to be their distributor in the U.S. This indeed seemed like a real opportunity.

The associate was very successful and had a good reputation but was not in the electrical product business. I began to wonder why such a large manufacturer would approach someone not experienced in electrical products to open such an important market. Since my friend had asked me to join with him in this venture, I asked, “Why would the manufacturer choose us when they have access to virtually anyone in the world?” His response was that it really wasn’t the manufacturer that wanted us as partners but a broker representing the manufacturer wanting to open a new market. Clearly still an opportunity but not anywhere near the scale that I thought was initially being offered.

We have all been in situations like those described here and you begin to wonder if there is a way to get to the real meaning of a communication. I believe there is. It really focuses on stepping back and looking at the bigger picture and asking questions that might be appropriate. In the case of the electrical product manufacturer, it was appropriate to look at the bigger picture and wonder why such a large manufacturer would choose an inexperienced group to represent their products.

In the case of a seemingly positive sales call, when a potential customer seems to elicit strong buying signals but asks for more information, it might be appropriate to ask, “Will this information be sufficient to help you make a decision?” or “I can have that information to you by tomorrow. When will you be ready to move forward?”

This might seem a little forward and perhaps even risky but in most cases it will identify areas that need to be covered in order to close a sale.

Questions can also turn a seemingly negative situation into one with a positive outcome. In one instance, a retail customer canceled an advertising contract with my company. The contract was for producing a weekly sales brochure. I asked why he would want to cancel the contract and the customer said “It doesn’t fit our image”. I asked, “What about the product doesn’t fit your image?” and he said,  “Well we are an upscale retailer.”  It occurred to me that the brochure was printed on quality paper but was primarily in black and white. I asked, “If we were able to provide a similar product in full color would it fit your image?” He responded, “ We would buy immediately.” Thus we went from a lost contract to a larger contract in the course of a few questions.

Today I am working on a proposal for a very large project that will engage our consulting firm for several years. The proposal is for a Central American government wishing to build new infrastructure components. We have met with the highest-level government officials as well as those responsible for managing the infrastructure projects. Everyone has assured us that we have the best expertise of any suitors and that we are preferred. In the meetings we were asked to submit a proposal in the shortest possible time so the government can begin moving forward with the proposed projects.

After the visits to Central America, we returned home and began thinking about the project. In the meantime one of our team members had a conversation with an individual in the government there who suggested we submit two proposals. One proposal would be for an individual project and one for guidance to be provided for all infrastructure upgrades.

This all sounds very positive at this point but also brings some questions to the forefront such as; “What should be different in the two proposals since we will be offering the same type of guidance in both instances?” or “Why two proposals?”

The answers to these questions will either limit or expand our opportunities in this country.

Asking the right question may seem like a trivial exercise but let me end with perhaps the most powerful example. I was visiting with a friend who is an oncologist at a prestigious cancer institute. She is most concerned with eliminating cervical cancer. This is an easily identifiable cancer and can be prevented by simply having an HPV vaccine administered to children from 9 to 12 years of age.

The HPV virus causes cervical cancer and Hepatitis B. Hepatitis B affects the entire population which suggests that the vaccine should be administered to males and females. Since the HPV virus is sexually transmitted the vaccine must be administered when the immune system is naïve or unexposed to the virus. Thus the vaccine must be administered before individuals become sexually active.

This vaccine is well publicized and in the U.S. is highly controversial because HPV is a sexually transmitted disease.  Use of the HPV vaccine has found vehement opposition from religious and political groups based on the sexual nature of the disease.

My friend calls the HPV vaccine problem the biggest marketing blunder of all time. She maintains that if it had been introduced as a cancer prevention drug only, it would have been adopted and a lot of lives could have been saved. She wonders why the drug companies didn’t ask the question,  “What is the biggest negative reaction to the introduction of this vaccine likely to be?”

My friend tells me that in today’s society that introduction to the HPV virus is inevitable and that if you want to prevent the disease get the vaccine. Mentioning sex or sexually transmitted diseases is only counter productive and opposition to the vaccine might have been avoided if someone asked the right question.

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