Ask, and you shall succeed

Written by Rick Spence

“How do you make sure you hire the right people?”

That was the question one group of entrepreneurs most wanted to discuss as we sat around the table in the meeting room of the Nottawasaga Inn in Alliston, Ont. The setting was GrowthCamp, the annual fall conference for the entrepreneurs on the PROFIT HOT 50 ranking (available at PROFITguide.com/hot50/). And the participants at our roundtable agreed the best solution came from Ken King, COO of Insta-Rent, a fast-growing retail chain owned by Edmonton-based Rentcash Inc., which ranks 28th on the list.

Eight other business owners nodded as King complained about how little job interviews reveal of what job seekers are really like. So here’s what he did to break through. After meeting one promising candidate, King ended the interview and thanked the prospect for coming. Then he asked one more question, in the casual, just-thought-of-it style of Peter Falk’s Det. Columbo. “So tell me: why did you leave your previous job?” For the first time, the candidate let down his guard. “My boss was an asshole,” he said.

With one answer, the job seeker showed his true self — and flunked the interview. Having scored with that question first time out, King says he still uses versions of that tactic in his never-ending efforts to resolve some of the uncertainties that fog up business decision-making.

King’s solution got me thinking about questions as a business tool. Yes, we all know from Sales 101 that questions are a salesperson’s best friend. A car dealer who doesn’t ask, “Are you looking to buy today?” will never become Employee of the Month. But there’s magic in a breakthrough question that shoots arrow-straight into the heart of a matter and exposes truths that elude conventional questioning.

Combative TV talk-show host Dr. Phil McGraw has a zinger. He uses a common sales qualifier to compel his guests — mainly dissatisfied spouses and troubled teens — to re-examine their lives. When they stubbornly defend their habits and choices, he asks, “How’s that workin’ for ya?” Suddenly, they’re squirming in their seats.

Tom Stoyan, a Toronto-based sales consultant, has a breakthrough question that sounded silly to me the first time I heard it. Now I realize it belongs in most business conversations. When talking with a prospect (or a supplier, or anyone else for that matter), never overwhelm them with details they don’t want. Before rushing into your spiel, says Stoyan, ask prospects if they want the 30-second version or the three-minute version. Their response will help you gauge their interest, and then tailor your message to fit.

The right question can also save you time and effort when dealing with people who want things from you. I learned this from a former editor of this magazine, Randall Litchfield. When visitors pitched complex schemes in which they hoped Litchfield would take part, he would rebuff oral propositions. “Can you send me a proposal on paper?” he would ask.

“Vapour” deals are easy to pitch; putting them on paper is hard. That simple request winnows out most entrepreneurs whose projects are still in the No Plan stage. And it forces the rest to think their projects through more clearly, saving you time and giving you a detailed proposal to evaluate.

Besides detectives and priests, venture capitalists are probably the best at asking questions. Their job is to wade through heady optimism, technical jargon, obscuring fluff and self-serving numbers to get to the truth. Like Columbo, they tend to ask a series of questions, starting with predictable, straightforward inquiries and moving inexorably toward more oblique, penetrating questions. Example: “Who are your existing customers? Who are your target customers? What constitutes an ‘ideal’ customer?” And, finally, “Who actually writes the cheque?”

But not all breakthrough questions are about getting an advantage. Some aim to diffuse complexity and create consensus. Duncan Noble, executive director of the commerce program at Mount Allison University, is a business coach whose clients run SMEs. When he meets with CEOs, he has little time to identify their issues and discuss solutions. But his basic line of questioning isn’t what you’d expect. He asks clients to talk about their personal values and beliefs. Then he asks them, “What is your organization’s reason for being? Why would you be missed if you were gone?”

Asking such abstract, personal questions helps him focus on his clients’ real issues. Often, he says, business owners complain about problems such as new product development or whether to buy a building, when the root issue is a conflict between the owner’s values and the growth of the firm. When one entrepreneur was having trouble managing his salesforce, Noble’s probing revealed the real problem was the entrepreneur, who didn’t want to do the job anymore. Identifying root causes helps his entrepreneurs resolve their dilemmas and tackle solutions with gusto. “Values govern behaviour,” says Noble. “People are more motivated when things are clear.”

Any questions?

What are the breakthrough questions you use to create clarity? Let me know, and we’ll publish the best in an upcoming issue.

© 2004 Rick Spence

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com