Using questions to power up your new service opportunities

How to open new service opportunities through the art of questioning – and listening

In this six-minute read, Mark Lloydbottom explains how to use questioning to uncover unmet – and often unidentified – client needs – and he provides a list of over 30 great questions to get you started.

It may sound obvious, but to build high-impact professional relationships, it is important to provide a service that makes the client aware of things they don’t already know. That’s why non-compliance, business consultancy-type services will almost always be perceived to be of higher value by the client than standard compliance work. 

Let’s look at this from the perspective of a visit to the doctor…. You have during the last few days been sneezing. Probably for the first couple of days you didn’t bother to take any medication thinking that your ailment would surely pass. But the sneezing, aches and headaches continued. You were finally persuaded to head for the doctors, and, while there, you were informed, not unexpectedly, that you had influenza. You thank the doctor for the prescription and the diagnosis and leave heading for the pharmacy. How did the visit rate? It was just what you expected – nothing unexpected, no real surprise!

Now another scenario…. You feel a few chest pains that persist more than you expect and maybe you respond a little more quickly to making an appointment to see the doctor. The doctor asks a few questions, takes your blood pressure, s/he looks a little concerned before announcing that you are to be referred to a hospital heart consultant. 

Now this diagnosis and the action being advised are taking you into the unknown, and, by the time you meet the consultant, you are ready to answer questions, listen and ensure you understand what the problem is and what your options are to fully recover.

I liken the first scenario to our compliance work, where the outcomes are generally known in advance. In the second scenario, you are entering unknown territory, and you may have been wondering if your symptoms are life-threatening.

How does this compare with your services and your professional expertise?

When you prepare financial statements, it could well be that you confirm the results the client was expecting – the client had looked at the trial balance results from their computer systems and had concluded that they were about 10 per cent up on the previous year. The fact that you reported profit was up by 12 per cent was not overly material to the client.

You calculate the tax, which the client had already estimated would be last year’s tax bill plus tax at the higher rate on the additional 10 per cent profit. So, maybe the client underestimated a little. The point is that the unknowns we used to hold sway over are not really unknowns anymore. However, the client isinterested to find out how much your fee is!

The client now has an anchor in his/her mind that your service revolves around confirming what they know and that the work you perform relates to times gone by rather than the future.

I do not seek to downgrade the value of your services, merely to provide an alternative perspective.

The reality is that most firms do not generate more than 10 per cent of their fees from non-compliance services. Those firms that do probably have specialists operating in areas other than compliance work. But it is these services where you are exploring more unknown areas, where potentially there is greater pain and greater value in addressing the pain.

Opening up new (non-compliance) service opportunities with your questions

The difference between a good accountant and a great accountant is that a great accountant asks

better questions than a good accountant. Listen to what your client is saying and, as you engage in the relationship, ask more questions 

In the words of the father of management theory, Peter Drucker: “My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and to ask questions.” It is wise, as an adviser, to ask better questions rather than to seek to give better answers. Your clients generally have all the answers; the key is to ask the questions they haven’t thought of. In a download, at the end of this blog, I provide a list of over 30 questions to get started.

The purpose of questions is to highlight any issues that hamper your client from achieving what he or she wishes to accomplish. I often say that questions are like seeds – plant them and they will grow.

Your conversation may lead to you client seeking help in any of the areas below, among others:

  • Cash-flow projections
  • Management accounts
  • Profit enhancement
  • Debt management
  • Reviewing your investment portfolio
  • Human resources
  • Payroll services
  • Tax mitigation
  • Regular consultancy/strategy meetings
  • Succession planning meetings
  • Business valuations
  • General business advice meetings

The key to using questions with clients is to avoid having a list of them in front of you. If you do, make sure you only glance at this occasionally. Using questions in this manner will not only stunt the flow of the conversation, it will limit your freedom to ask ‘drill-down’ questions. These are the follow up questions to the information provided by your client in response to your last question. Along the journey of drilling down, you are likely to dip into your question bank so that the meeting has a natural flow to it.