Learning about asking better questions is a simple process. There are a few basic rules that anybody can learn. It’s one of the most important skills you need to practice and master as a company owner. Caterpillar offers these tips to help:
How to Prepare
If a customer arranges a sit-down and doesn’t provide much context for the specific subject at hand, ask them what they want to talk about. Know the nature of the visit ahead of time to help you prepare questions.
Think it through. Spend time evaluating how well you understand this customer’s needs. What do you know about this customer’s challenges? Was there anything the customer said in the past that you thought was interesting or revealing? Ask around. Has this customer landed a big job lately or is this customer preparing bids on one? What do subcontractors, bankers or other members of your community tell you about this customer?
Write your questions down. This doesn’t have to be a formal document. Just jot down some main points to cover in the meeting and memorize those points beforehand.
Anticipate. Think about what answers you might receive from your customer and have replies ready.
What Makes a Good Question?
The best questions are open ended. Don’t ask questions that have simple “yes” or “no” answers. These are conversation stoppers. Instead, ask questions that start with a “what” or “how.” These lead to fuller and more useful answers. For example: “What do you think about … ?” Or: “How did that … ?”
Don’t fish for compliments or box a customer in with a question that begs for a specific answer. You may know the answer already, but don’t assume the customer is going to respond in a certain way. Examples:
Don’t ask: “That new excavator is really powerful, isn’t it?
Do ask: “Tell me what your experience has been with that new excavator.” Let the customer answer fully. If he or she skips over anything you think is important, circle back around with questions like: “What about the fuel efficiency?” Or “What do you think about the ground level maintenance?”
And don’t just practice this skill when it’s time for a formal meeting. Even if you see a customer out on the town or at a social event, be open to the possibility that you can uncover an unfulfilled need of which you were unaware — business or otherwise.
It's Ok to Ask
Open-ended questions may feel unnatural at first, but they give the customer room to explore their thoughts and both of you will learn more. And as you get better at this, it will come more naturally, and you’ll see the benefits multiply.
People liked to be asked in-depth questions. To your customers it feels good to have a knowledgeable person explore their thoughts, validate their opinions and show respect for their experience and knowledge in a directed, focused and yet friendly way.
Once you’ve earned their trust and they see how your questions help them frame their needs, you’ll be surprised how much they’ll tell you and how much you can learn.
Reflect on your understanding of your customer needs. Schedule some time with them for an open, honest discussion of how you are or are not meeting their needs.