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Questions for Consultants: Useful Things to Ask Your Clients

How do you know what makes your client tick? How do you find out how much money they have to spend? How can you get them to detail all of the potential risks to the project up front? How can you make them, as people, happy?

You do it all by asking questions. The right questions.

In my career as an independent consultant, I’ve worked with some of the largest and most respected organisations in the world. While all of these clients had problems of very different shapes and sizes, they all shared one thing in common: they were asking for help. Anyone who needs help needs to be listened to and understood—it’s imperative that a consultant fully recognises the problems the client faces before we even begin to consider the solutions.

The key to understanding is asking.

Questions for Consultants compiles years of my very best questions into a simple, digestible, and reusable format so that you too can uncover a wealth of information in very little time.

The book analyses and dissects each question, shedding light on its underlying intentions and what we truly aim to learn. I then discuss ways in which we can utilise that information to help form and guide our working engagement. The ultimate aim is to gather as much mission-critical information in the shortest amount of time possible, and then turn it all in favour of the project.

And while this book won’t change your life, it will make you more competent, more confident, and more money.

Who is this book for?

This book is suited to anyone who deals with clients. You don’t have to be a consultant, but consultancy is my particular vantage point. It’s for anyone who has ever embarked on a project being unsure of what is expected of them. For anyone who has finished a project wondering ‘How could I avoid that issue next time?’ For anyone who wants to go into their work better prepared.

This book will not teach you how to become a consultant, but it will certainly show you the correct ways of thinking and will definitely help you on your path to consultancy.

If you have any questions at all about the book’s content or suitability, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me: https://twitter.com/csswizardry

Sample

Each question detailed in the book follows the same format:

  • The question
  • Relevant expansion
  • Why are we asking them?
  • What is our underlying motive?
  • What are we looking out for in their response?
  • How can we turn this information in favour of the project?
  • Example responses and analysis.
How would you describe the entire project in one sentence?
To ensure everyone involved knows, at least at a high level, what we’re all working toward, could we distill the aims and goals of this project into one simple, plain-English, jargon-free sentence?

Why are we asking?

Oftentimes, we have so many emails, calls, and contact in the opening phases of an engagement that it’s easy to lose the message in all of the noise. The number of times I’ve left a meeting or a call and thought to myself ‘Wait. What do they even need?!’ is far more than I would like to admit. The risk here is that we end up being asked to put together proposals without fully understanding the scope and expectations of our work. If we could somehow ask the client ‘What do you want?’ and get a concise answer, all without blowing our cover, then we can find out exactly what they need and where we fit into their plans.

What do we really mean?

We can’t usually get away with telling a client ‘Sorry, I don’t understand what you’re asking me for.’ It’s far too basic a thing for us to have missed, and we run the risk of them wondering whether we’ve even been listening to them at all. By phrasing the question this way, we get another chance, and can reframe our problem as a simple exercise in focus—can you as a client distill the problem into one soundbite so that everyone on the team knows what they’re aiming at?

What do we hope to find out?

At a very high level, what we’re hoping to learn is the broad scope of the project. This tells us why we’ve been contacted and what the client wants. All we need to do now is fill in the gaps of how we all get there, which we do in our proposal. The finer details around strategy, implementation, and delivery are exactly that—finer details. These can be worked out in either a slower or a more collaborative manner.

How do we use this information?

First and foremost, it tells us in one terse command exactly what is expected of us. It removes any confusion around what the client might need from our services. Next, during the proposal process, we can refer back to this statement as we lay out our solutions. This reinforces to the client that we understand their problems and we have a plan for addressing them directly. Finally, as we move through the project, we have a mission statement of sorts that we can collectively refer back to so as to ensure we’re still on target and not deviating from the primary objectives of the engagement.

Example Response 1

We know we’re losing out on ecommerce revenue due to poor performance, particularly on mobile, so we’d like to identify any issues we may have missed and get them live as soon as possible.

This is a really great answer. Straight to the point and tells me exactly what I need to do: find and fix performance issues on mobile. My job now is to define a strategy for doing so and work it into a proposal and then a working engagement.

Example Response 2

We want to plan, design, and build a design system for Company Ltd. that can be maintained as a living styleguide to be consumed directly into a suite of our different products.

This answer is borderline as we’re beginning to introduce some technical terms verging on jargon. This is acceptable for the intended audience, but we do risk blurring the edges of our responsibilities. Answers like this are generally workable but don’t be afraid to go back and simplify or refine.

Example Response 3

The new Head of Customer Experience has tasked us with improving retention.

This is not a great answer. The immediate mention of another stakeholder shows that the person responding is not responsible or, I would guess, particularly enthusiastic about this body of work. The goals are quite vague, which doesn’t help me work out what my deliverables should be, nor do I know what I will be measured against. I would want to go back to the client and rework how we frame the entire engagement, bringing the Head of Customer Experience into the fold.

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Questions for Consultants: Useful Things to Ask Your Clients

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