The excitement of nailing down a lead and talking to a potential client can sometimes get the best of many businesses. When I started Aginto; as with many business owners; I was just excited to potentially make a sale. But, was I asking the right questions. In 2013 I began really analyzing the consultation portion of our client funnel, and ran into a startling dilemma about the expectations that were being set (or not set) during the early stages of a client relationship.
You’ve probably run into this yourself when sitting at the table: Ask the client too many questions and you might drive them away or set yourself up as someone who is hard to work with. If you don’t ask them enough questions, you’ll have no direction, no understanding of what they really need, and no ability to determine whether or not you are a good fit. The solution? Asking the right questions. Here’s how:
1. Start by asking what they do need
You might not even have to ask a potential client this question. Chances are they will come out of the gate already telling you what they need, at least in very general terms. You need to help them get as specific as possible. Keep in mind that clients might not always know exactly what they need or how to ask for it. It’s your job to provide them with what they need, even if they don’t know exactly what it is. But it can still be helpful to ask them what they think they need.
2. Ask them what they don’t need
Asking a client what they do not need can be a great way to focus in on what you can (or perhaps cannot) do for that client. Don’t make assumptions. Even if they tell you about their pain points, they might not actually be expecting your product or service to solve all of those pain points. You can use the information they give you to determine which of your offerings is going to work for this client or, maybe, if it might be better to simply pass on this deal. Not every potential client is going to be right for you, and asking what they don’t need can be a good way to find that out before the contract is signed.
3. Ask what problems they have been facing
This should be one of the first questions that you ask when you are first approached by a potential client. For example, if you have a website development company, you will probably be bombarded by requests for new websites. While just about every business needs a website, in order to provide that potential client with a website that will actually be useful to them, you need to know what problem they are actually trying to solve. And the problem should not be, “We don’t have a website,” or “We don’t like our website.” It should be something like, “We need more business,” or “Our current website isn’t helping us close sales like it should.”
4. Ask about expectations
Getting a good grasp of your potential client’s expectations long before any firm commitment has been made can save you both a lot of time and stress. You’ve probably already worked with a client whose expectations were not made clear to you until you already started to deliver on a product or service. While you might sometimes meet their unknown expectations, you are much more likely to fall short. Understanding their expectations beforehand can ensure that you have what it takes to meet those expectations or, alternative, help you dodge the bullet of a client whose expectations are simply too high.
5. Ask who makes the final decision and what the approval process looks like
We’ve all worked for a client that allows far too many cooks to be in the kitchen or has a lengthy and unwieldy approval process for even the smallest change. Are you actually talking to the person who makes the final decisions? Or are all decisions going to be made by committee? This is just as important for understanding how your work might be evaluated (and by whom and what personalities you might be dealing with) as it is for determining whether or not this is an environment you want to work in. If every decision has to be agreed upon by seventeen people and it takes four weeks to get an answer, it might be better to let another business handle this request.
6. Ask who their company competes with
It is always useful to know who you have to beat when you are providing a solution to a company. The best way to phrase this question is with an eye to the future. Talk to your potential client about how they want to better compete with and beat out their competition, not just about how they are responding to their competition’s releases.
7. Ask what the next step is
If, after asking all of these questions, you think that you and the potential client are a good match, it’s time to talk about “next steps.” This is a phrase used so often in business that it sometimes loses meaning, but the truth is that you do not want to leave a conversation with a potential client hanging. Always knowing what to do next, when you are going to be in touch, what you need to do to win their business ensures that you can actually turn that lead into a client.
In order to set and meet your client expectations, you need to be asking them the right questions to bring that information to the surface. Setting expectations from the onset will help to limit the amount of stress or confusion that may arise as the relationship develops, and you’ll be able to deliver greater value for your product or service.
Giving clients what they want is the outcome that everyone wants, so get to the bottom line of a clients expectations as soon as possible when you’re beginning a new partnership.