Best Questions to Ask Your Consulting Clients

(This article was originally published on Consulting Success)

One of the most important skills a consultant can possess is the ability to ask clients the right questions at the right time.

I know that sounds simple, but don’t fault me for it. Sometimes the simplest things can be the most powerful and profound.

This ability will help you uncover a client or prospect’s most urgent needs, the underlying issues, and what’s most important to them.

Before You Ask

Now before you start asking all kinds of questions at your next meeting, you need to do one thing well first.

And that…is listen.

Listening intently to what clients are saying is the starting point for making any consulting project a success.

If you don’t listen carefully to what your clients are telling you about their business and current situation, you’ll have no way to understand what solution will best give them the result they want to achieve.

I know that sounds simple, but don’t fault me for it. Sometimes the simplest things can be the most powerful and profound.

Starting to Ask

The next step, asking the right questions, is what will allow you to truly deliver your clients with the highest level of value and done right, establish your authority status and aid in building your credibility.

There are a multitude of questions that you can ask your clients in different situations.

To start, here are three common questions consultant ask, yet often make a mistake in doing so…

The Wrong Questions

1. Inexperienced consultants will often start by asking prospective clients something like: “So tell me a little about your business?”

One of the most important factors in making any marketing effort a success is understanding who the ideal client is.

This screams amateur. Why? Because if you’re a professional you’ve already taken the time to research and understand your prospects marketplace.

Better question: Start by pointing out a few facts about the prospects marketplace. Show that you already understand their industry and have done some homework – even at a basic level. Then you can ask them a question like: “Many companies in this market are currently facing the issue of X, are you also finding that a challenge, or is there a bigger more pressing issue on your mind?”

2. “Who is your target market?” That question by itself isn’t a problem. The issue is when you allow the client to answer it in little detail. One of the most important factors in making any marketing effort a success is understanding who the ideal client is. You want to keep digging here so you uncover everything you can about the client.

Better question: “Can you tell me what your ideal client looks like? How old are they? Where do they live? What magazines or newspapers (or websites) do they read? What is their income level? What is their most pressing problem or desired result?”

The answers to these questions will provide you with much more information to act on and use than just the general response you’ll get with the initial question.

3. “What is your budget for this project?” This is a horrible question because it assumes that the prospect or client has a budget. Worse yet, it positions your service as a commodity with a big fat price sticker on it.

Better question: “What is the value of a new client to you?”. If a new client is worth $20,000 to your client then you can start the discussion around your fee by associating it to the value your client will receive. If you can help them get 3 new clients each month, and each one is worth $20k to them that’s $60,000 a month in new revenue and value created. If the client even had a budget in mind, it may have only been $3000. But now, as they see that you’ll help them create a strategy and process that will generate over $700,000 a year, your fee of $30,000 doesn’t look unreasonable. That’s a 10X increase.

The Right Questions

Here is a list of great questions that will help you to be seen as a trusted advisor by clients and prospects alike.

“What is your number one priority for this business unit during this fiscal year?” By asking them specifically for their number one priority you can help them clarify whether that really should be their #1 priority. Then you can look at how to help them achieve. Plus, you can document that and refer back to it to help keep your client on course and focused.

“What do you believe needs to be strengthened in order to support achieving this?” This question will help you uncover areas of weakness in your clients business. Sometimes there could be one employee that is causing a whole deal of trouble. Yet the President has chosen to ignore dealing with the employee and instead masks the problem by convincing themselves they can solve it by focusing on a separate initiative. Knowing that the employee really is the problem you can talk more with the President and look at alternatives in dealing with the core issue rather than spending time and money on something completely irrelevant.

By getting the client to speak openly with you about this you can figure out how to best help them deal with the issue, remove the roadblock and overcome the challenge in the way.

“What options have you looked at to achieve this…?” There is no need to reinvent the wheel here. Understanding what your client has done to this point, or what they are thinking about, can uncover something that you may not have thought about yourself (that is worth trying) or may allow you to make recommendations in doing the same thing again, but in a different way when the client has done it improperly before.

“Is there anything that you or your employees are doing that may be getting in the way of achieving this result?” Often you can find clients taking actions that are actually harmful to their business or are getting in the way of the progress they want to make. By getting the client to speak openly with you about this you can figure out how to best help them deal with the issue, remove the roadblock and overcome the challenge in the way.

“What is unique about your business compared to your competitors?” You can ask this question in many ways. For example, “Why should customers/clients choose your company over the competition?” Many clients have trouble answering this question. They respond with things like: “We’ve been in business for 30 years” and “We have the best service” or “Our quality is just the best”. You know what? Who cares! That may make the client feel all warm and fuzzy, but none of those are reasons for the marketplace to choose your client over the competition. Help your client by getting them to clarify what exactly is their value proposition, their competitive advantage, the reason the market should choose them over anyone else.

“What was the main reason that you wanted to meet with me?” This question is most effective when you find your client isn’t engaged in the conversation in the way you’d like them to be. It forces them to take notice and actually tell you why they wanted to meet. You can then come back to those reasons throughout the conversation and remind them why they wanted to meet and the value that you can provide. You don’t do this in a pushy or self-centered way, but rather if the client has told you that they wanted to meet you because they need a consultant that can help them reduce their employee turnover rate, you can focus the discussion on the keyword ’employee turnover rate’ and ‘lower the employee turnover rate’.

“Who will be making the final decisions on this project and who will be in charge of implementation?” This is another critical question that amateur consultants forget to ask. This should be asked early in the conversation as you want to ensure you’re dealing with the person in charge that will be writing you the check. At one time or another, early in their careers, consultants find themselves working hard to ‘sell their services’ only to find out they’ve been talking with the wrong people. This wastes time and can really drain your energy and knock your confidence level.

When you’re asking these questions, don’t be shy to challenge your client on their responses. The more you dig the more you can help your client find the core issues…and the greater the value you will be able to help them discover and enjoy.

Are you ready to take your consulting business to the next level? Our Accelerator Coaching Program has helped consultants land over $5.86 Million in new revenues over the last 18 months. If you’re looking for a proven process to move your business forward and create a sustainable and profitable consulting practice you can request more details here.

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Now, what questions do you ask? Have a favorite that you’ve found to be effective? Share your ideas with the community in the comments below…

Michael Zipursky

About Michael Zipursky

Michael Zipursky is a leading authority on growing and scaling consulting businesses. His work has been featured by Marketing Profs, Huffington Post, the Certified Management Institute and many other media.

He is the author of Consulting Success System and runs the Accelerator Coaching Program for consultants who want to grow their business.

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