I spent many years consulting, and it’s often said that good questions are a consultant’s best friend.

ask good questions wins new business

The power of questions is the basis of all new business success.

Back in the day, I ran a consulting firm that focused on solving complex operational issues for large firms. My greatest joy came from showing new, young, consultants the ropes – training them up and helping them become effective consultants. The first and most important lesson I would teach was how to be the dumbest person in the room. The last thing I needed was to head into a client meeting and have a young consultant try to sound smart. They had a bad habit of spouting off on some “book theory” or new industry trend that was a show stopper… and embarrassing. Trying to sound smart often sent the conversation off on a tangent, far away from the real issues I was trying to uncover. So be dumb was the first rule. But always ask questions. Dumb ones, smart ones, why ones, any question. Just. Ask.

Today, I spend my time working with marketing firms of all types, teaching them how to win new business. And sadly, most agencies are afraid of seeming dumb, inferior, or just not very business savvy. So they try to overcompensate by acting like they know everything, and they talk too much about how they’ve really helped some brand, “just look at all these great examples of our work!” Or they fall into the trap of asking the same old generic “sales” questions:

  • How’s business?
  • What are your goals for this year?
  • Who is your competition?
  • How is your company going to stand out?
  • How has your company been successful in the past?
  • Who is your customer?
  • What can we do to help?
  • What is your budget?

Ugh. Most of these you should already know. If you don’t know, then you can’t ask until you have a strong bond of trust.  And never, NEVER ask for the budget! Get the number; just don’t ask for their budget! Read here how to handle that question.

New business is very different than agency work. It requires a different skill set and learning how to ask good questions is at the top of the list. Look again at that list above. To an already existing client, someone who knows you, someone who trusts you, those are perfectly good questions.

To a prospect, you’re wasting their time. They will not open up to you. They will not give you the truth. They will feed you a few nuggets and brush you off.

The questions you ask, and when and how you ask them, are more important than anything else you can do to win the account. Remember that the most successful new business pros talk less than the prospect. A good rule of thumb is 30% for the agency compared to 70% for the prospect. The best way to get your prospect talking is to ask relevant questions. Questions will determine a prospect’s wants, needs and desires. Once you have established needs, you can start to build a case to demonstrate how your agency can meet them better than what is now being done.

Plan to ask questions concisely. To accomplish this, you should:

  • Have thoughtful questions prepared in advance. Ask only those that apply. And always have good questions to fall back on.
  • After the second question, ask permission to take notes, “This is really good information, do you mind if I take a few notes?” This builds trust and helps the prospects focus their answers.
  • Actively listen. Repeat comments back to the prospect to help clarify what is being said. Remember to ask why.
  • Deliver your questions in a conversational tone. Don’t sound as if you were conducting an inquisition.
  • Listen carefully to the answers you get. Your prospect’s answers will lead you to other productive questions.
  • Make sure you do less than half of the talking. Never add or contribute your own experiences or stories to the conversation. This is the time for you to be learning, not talking.

You do need to pay special attention to the set of questions that will help you determine who makes the decisions you need. A new business pro has to rely on skillful questions and good listening to determine who makes the agency selection decisions.

Most agencies focus on the specific prospect need. The prospect needs a brochure, a website, something tangible the agency can solve. By asking open-ended questions, listening, and asking more questions, critical information is obtained. What are the real prospect challenges?

The always great Rain Selling Blog has outlined a few really good questions here:


They close with this outstanding advice:

Additional tip: if the buyer answers a question and you want them to expand further, ask them, “how so?” Or, “can you tell me a little more about that?” You’ll be surprised at just how much you can learn, and the difference it will make in your ability to help them succeed.

Allowing a prospect to talk involves that person in the process, helps clarify what is desired and incorporates your agency into his or her thinking. And that is how you can win the account by being the dumbest person in the room.

And be sure to read Why Prospects Don’t Tell You the Truth as well!


Photo by ePi.Longo and used under Creative Commons