We’ve all heard advice regarding how to develop meaningful, lasting relationships with clients: Prepare for meetings. Know your clients. Recommend relevant solutions. Ask good questions. I’d like to share my experience regarding the last item because asking thoughtful questions takes practice, excellent listening skills and finesse. And you can use the answers to make a profound impact on the direction of your campaign and how well you perform.
As an agency that’s been in business for over 25 years, we’ve honed our skills in asking questions. In fact, the art of asking questions has become an integral part of our strategic marketing process — allowing us to differentiate our services and provide a higher level of strategic guidance. Almost every one of our clients has commented on how helpful, insightful and unique our process of asking questions is and how they’ve felt understood as a client as a result of our diligence and thought.
Here’s my advice for asking clients excellent questions. As you do so, keep in mind that active listening is also part of the process, so ensure that you’re making eye contact with your clients and not interrupting them.
Ask questions that are specific about the topic at hand, yet open-ended.
A good example is: “Can you tell me more about how you’d like to use this video beyond marketing purposes?” You might be surprised by the answers you get. It may be that internal training is your client’s real motivation, or perhaps the owner is retiring and the video needs to be positioned as a tribute to their career. Other good examples of prompts and questions include: “Tell me more.” “Share your experiences.” “How might your customers interpret that?” It’s not only okay but preferred if your clients stop to think about the question. That’s often how you know it’s a good one.
Preface questions with a statement.
A good technique for asking questions is to preface them with a statement, like so: “I see that your competitor has started placing customer stories on their website, and I think it’s pretty effective. How might we leverage your customers’ successes on your website and elsewhere?” Prefacing a question with a statement allows the listener to catch up with you. Overwhelming someone with questions over and over again can be a turnoff.
Be honest and forthcoming about your apprehensions.
Instead of suggesting the same methods that you usually do to communicate with your client’s customers, you might say, “I don’t know whether email is the best medium to explain a complex technical product. Have you thought about a podcast series as a good way to explain and educate in smaller, bite-sized messages?” Again, your client might surprise you and reveal more information. They might say, “I like the idea of podcasts, but I think it would take too much time and effort to record them.” In this case, come prepared to lay out a plan for how you can accomplish this and lessen their burden. For instance, you might take on the role of interviewer to allow your client to feel at ease and not have to prepare as much material.
Include “what if” scenarios.
Here’s where you can have some fun. One of the most compelling series of questions I ask is: “What if your product, service or company didn’t exist? What would you buy? From whom? And why?” After your client’s initial shock that you even have the gall to ask, they’ll likely quickly understand the implications. When you ask “what if” questions, you’re actually asking someone to think ahead into the future and imagine the possibilities rather than stay with the status quo. I’ve had these kinds of questions lead to a series of customer interviews, focus studies and internal follow-up meetings — all designed to get to the bottom of these questions. Regarding value to your agency, our agency has used the answers to these specific questions to craft taglines, launch entirely new campaigns, successfully outperform a competitor and more.
Ask the unspoken question, sometimes known as the elephant in the room.
This is the question, problem or issue that everyone knows about but hasn’t spoken up about thus far. To bridge the gap, be brave, and attempt to carefully reveal the topic through a question. Unspoken questions are often barriers to agreement, so getting them out in the open is both a good faith gesture and a demonstration that you’re well-educated about the matter and prepared to find a resolution. Some examples of how to ask such questions are: “How can we creatively address our continued low sales of a particular product?” “Our email numbers continue to decline, and we’ve tried changing visuals, subject lines and content. Can we talk about our database as a probable cause?” “The most effective way to influence customers is through education. Who else outside of your department might we tap for instructional content on an ongoing basis?”
If you’re hoping to further advance your skills in asking clients questions, I advise you to rehearse prior to client meetings. Test your questions with others in your agency. Honest feedback can help you improve, and practice can build your question-asking muscles. Try new approaches and be creative, and you can continually improve.