The art of asking questions

So, asking questions is easy, right? You just… ask them. 

See what I did there? I asked a question which presumed an answer...and also opened the way for some of you to think “wait, there’s something more behind what she’s saying...I think she’s saying it might not be easy”....

There is SO much more to question asking (and answering) than we realise. As the owner of a creative agency whose purpose involves understanding our clients better so we can help them create better marketing...asking questions is one of the most important skills we have. 

How we ask questions and how we listen, can entirely change the answers we receive. 

Every month we do a PF training session internally, on anything the team want to learn more about. Websites, branding, SEO, content writing, video….things which help us help our clients better. 

Over lockdown we were so busy and focused so much on helping clients everywhere we could. We got out of the habit of team trainings, and recently realised it was time for building them in again. So I asked the team what they most wanted to learn about.

The number one thing they wanted to learn was “how to ask questions better”. 

(The second one was about sales & how we help prospects, which we realised in our training has many similar themes and involves a good question-asking!)

I love that this was the thing they wanted to learn. 

It reminded me how our team really care about our clients. They know asking questions is a skill, and the better they are at questions the better they will draw out who our clients actually are, since marketing is about representing the truth of who you and your firm are. When we draw that out well, we’re better able as a team to represent these clients in the most accurate way...so they in turn get the very best clients THEY want. 

It also encouraged me how the team are continuing to see how much of our work is “marketing therapy”. Our clients come to us with bad prior marketing experiences. Frustrations. Confusions. Anger. Annoyance. A feeling of wasted time, or money, or energy, or all of the above. 

They also come with hopeful and motivational feelings. Curiosity. Intrigue. A willingness to experiment. And questions! 

Accountants come to us with questions and it’s tempting for us to simply have the answers. Be the experts. Lead. Guide. Tell. Inform. 

And the more we get to know our clients, and marketing itself, the more we realise leadership in marketing is a servant-based leadership. We’re here to serve, to listen, to ask, to delve deep, to help, to draw out. 

The best marketing answers for your firm are within you. 

Yes, we have experience in the sort of things which may be helpful. There are some marketing principles which apply to every accountant anywhere in the world - hence the creation and continued running of our 12 week coaching group, Accelerator. This group goes through the 12 elements of marketing every accountant needs to understand in order for their marketing to be any good, to bring you the best clients FOR YOU (which could be, and often are, very different from the best clients for another accountant over there).

No matter who your clients are, what your focus is, your firm name or website, whether you write blogs or record video or are on all the socials or none of them….you still need to know these 12 things, in order, so you build the best marketing for those you want to draw in.

Knowing those principles is only the beginning: and even within Accelerator we are continually asking questions. Who is your favourite client? What characteristics do they have which makes them a favourite above anyone else? What questions do your clients and prospects ask you? Which ones do they ask over and over? What do they say at the beginning of a new relationship with you as their accountant? What are your values, and where did they come from? How do you apply those values to your team and your clients?

Only you know the answer to those questions for you. For your firm. 

We don’t know: so it’s our job to draw them out, by asking the right questions. And the right follow up questions. And to share our advice and expertise at the right time. At PF, we define transparency as “sharing the right things at the right time to build relationship”. Asking questions helps us understand what to share with you and when - because your marketing experience isn’t the same as another accountant’s. Your audience and the issues they have aren’t the same. Your brand, your team, your values, your processes aren’t the same. 

So within our Questions Training I asked a lot of questions from the team. And here are some of the things we learned, and will keep learning. Feel free to use what you learn here as you ask questions yourself, of your clients. 

Questions are answered differently depending who is asking the question, and in what environment. If you’re asked a question in a group session on Zoom, you’ll answer differently than if a family member or close friend asked it. 

  • How do we give someone the confidence, freedom, permission to be comfortable, to answer honestly, to be vulnerable? How and when is that built? 

Our expectations from a question may be that we’re supposed to give “the right answer” (whereas in marketing, the answer is within you). It’s not like accounting work, where there is a right answer and you need to look it up and apply it to that client or their business: with marketing, there are many potential answers, some of which will fit with your firm and help you draw in the best kind of clients, and others which won’t. So when we ask a question relating to your marketing, we’re helping you dig into the answer, which is within you. (Whether you know it yet or not.) And that means we need to be curious, interested, ready to hear your thoughts 

  • How do we set expectations that we’re not asking the question to get ONE answer, but that we’re genuinely curious what you think?

“I don’t know” is an invitation for more and better questions. Often we say “I don’t know” because we need more time. More information. A better question. It’s rare we absolutely don’t know, at all: more often it’s simply that we don’t know how to share what we know. How to say it. What we mean by it. Whether we believe what came to mind. Where that came from and why.

  • How can we dig deeper? What can we add to the question which will help it to be better understood, for the person to find the answer within them? 

There’s a balance between being too specific or too broad with your question. If the question is too specific, you risk getting a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and that’s the end of the discussion. It hasn’t opened up more conversation, it’s shut it down. Conversely if the question is too broad, it’s confusing and we don’t know how to answer it. 

  • What else could we add to the question to help someone answer it better? Things like an example, a story, the reason we’re asking the question, a way someone else answered it, a hint or guide. 

Answering questions in a group setting is very different from answering questions one to one. The approach I take with questions in a group Accelerator session (with anywhere from 20 to 50 people attending) is very different from the way I ask questions in a one to one session. In a group setting, questions need to be specific and easily answered by typing into the chat. In a one to one setting, I can ask a more open ended question and let the person stop to think. 

  • What kind of setting am I going into, and how might my questions need to change to reflect that? How safe does (or might) the person or group feel, and how will that affect how they answer? 

It’s less a matter of “the right questions” and more a matter of the right prompts, directions, and curiosity. Questions work best when they are asked with true curiosity - with a desire to really understand, to find out anything which hasn’t been shared, to unearth new things. This means you may ask one question ten different ways, depending on the person, the situation, what you are hoping to learn, and how much the person is aware of. Some of the prompts we discussed are: 

  • “I wonder if…” 
  • WHAT vs WHY
  • Could it be…? And if it was…? 
  • For example….(tell a story)
  • What else….? 
  • And what else?
  • Tell me more about…
  • Talk to me about…
  • I’m curious about...
  • Do you understand the question?
  • What would happen if…?
  • How does this fit with…. 

How you listen matters: listen to understand, not to respond. If your primary concern is about getting a particular answer, or even more about what you will say next, you won’t hear what they are saying. Listening to understand means you have fewer expectations and more openness. It takes longer and takes more energy, and it’s absolutely worth that extra investment. 

  • How might we listen better? What prevents us from listening fully, with all our ears? 

Silence helps get to the real answer. Most of us are uncomfortable with silence - especially on a Zoom call or phone call. The more comfortable you can get with silence, the higher the probability you will get to the real answer, the deep reasons, the true objection. This is particularly true in a sales call, and even more true following your sharing prices. When you break the silence first, you’re easing the pain or making presumptions. When you wait for them to break silence, it’s far more likely you get to the real reasons or problems, because they won’t like silence and will rush to fill it - with what they actually think.

  • What do you tend to do with silence? Where does that come from? How might you get better at leaving space for silence? How could you practice more silence even with friends and family? 

The questions you don’t want to ask are often the very ones you need to ask. When you think of a particular question and then think, “Oh, I don’t want to ask that”..., it may be because you’re nervous about what the answer would be, or you think you know the answer already, or you’re concerned how it will appear if you ask that question. 

  • What question do you not want to ask? What’s preventing you from asking it? What positive thing might happen if you asked it? 

When you ask questions until they get to the answer themselves, they own the solution. When you simply tell someone the answer, they may hear a little of it. (Or none of it.) They’ve got other things on their mind, and you’re just telling them what to think or what to do or what your opinion is. However, when you ask questions that help them dig deep into the whys and the wherefores and the what if’s and the what is holding you back….by the time they get to the answer, it’s THEY who got to the answer. You didn’t tell them, they found it. That’s the most powerful solution of all.

  • What other questions might we ask, to help them go deeper? Where can (or do we need to) we stop ourselves giving advice, and ask questions instead? 

Sometimes “I don’t know” means they need more time to think. It’s still worth asking the question (and even some follow up questions), but not everyone processes answering in the same way. Some people need a few seconds, some a few minutes, some a few days, some a few weeks or even months - depending on the person, the question, the issue, and the place they’re in at the time. I’ve had questions I’ve needed to mull over for literal weeks and months (even years), and other questions i know the answer before the question-asker has even finished speaking. It’s okay to let people process the answer at their own pace, and come back to it again later. 

  • What is (or when is) the follow up to the question? Might the person need to know the question before the meeting or session? Might they need extra time to consider and think and mull over afterwards? What can you give them which will help them with that? 

What i’d love to hear from you today is…

What do you find hard about asking (or answering) questions? 

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