Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Sales Wisdom from Harvey Mackay:

Harvey Mackay's Column This Week

Ask the right questions to get the best answers

When I was a kid, one of my favorite games was "Twenty Questions." Remember the drill? Animal, vegetable or mineral? Living or not? Famous? Male or female? And so on, until you had either guessed the correct answer or exhausted your quota. Don't forget, they could only be answered with a yes or no, which limited the information drastically.

The better the question, the better the chance of getting the answer. It took me a while to figure out how to best reach my conclusion. I had to think fast, and plan my questions so that they got narrower and narrower. I had to listen very carefully to the answers before I asked the next question, or I might waste a turn.

Alan Freitas, who is president of Priority Management, challenged me with this question: What kind of questioner are you? Asking questions will get you information; but asking the right kind of questions will get you better information sooner, as well as help establish rapport and trust.

Freitas doesn't like the Twenty Questions method, now that we're all grown up and in the business world. He counsels folks in his seminars to ask open-ended questions for two major reasons:

  • They invite the other person to participate and get involved, which increases the likelihood of securing their commitment.
  • The answers to open-ended questions provide you with information that you must have if you are to succeed in getting the other person to do what you want.

Additionally, Freitas says, open-ended questions require a more expansive response than a yes or no, or a simple statement of fact. They create a conversational tone and avoid sounding like an interrogation.

I recommend an approach that any journalism student learns the first day of class—the who/what/when/where/why/how approach. These questions work for any project, and they can't be answered with a simple yes or no. It's a perfect checklist to cover all the bases: the purpose, goals, details, timelines and staffing.

The first questions that generally are asked begin with "why." The "why" questions are the first that need to be answered: "Why are we doing this?" "Why didn't we do this before?" "Why should we change something that is working so well?"

My favorite business conversation starters begin with "how" and "what": "How do you recommend we proceed?" "What will be our biggest advantages as we work on this project?" "What is the worst thing that can happen, and how can we best handle it?" "What is our best possible outcome?"

I also like the "when" questions: "When do we review our progress?" "When do we roll out our plans to our customers?" "When do we need to involve more people on the team?"

The "who" and "where" details will follow; they deserve complete answers as well. "Who will coordinate?" "Where will we see the most improvement?" "Who will be involved?" "Where do we go from here?"

Clearly, each separate project will present its own set of questions, and the time to start asking them is before any work begins.

And please, dear manager, adopt the attitude that there really are no stupid questions—if they are sincere. I can't tell you how many times a seemingly innocent question has led to a whole set of possibilities, which sometimes have changed the scope and direction of our work. No one can think of everything!

Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz put it this way: "You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions."

That point is illustrated so well in the case of the grandfather who was fixing breakfast for a young grandson. Grandpa prepared a big bowl of oatmeal, his own favorite breakfast.

"Do you like sugar?" he asked the small boy.

The grandson nodded yes.

"How about some butter, too?"

Again the boy nodded yes.

"Of course, you like milk?"

"Sure," the boy replied.

But when grandpa placed the steaming bowl of oatmeal with butter, sugar and milk before him, the boy refused to eat it.

The grandfather was exasperated. "But when I asked you, didn't you say you liked sugar, butter and milk?"

"Yes," replied the youngster, "but you didn't ask me if I liked oatmeal."

Mackay's Moral: The person who asks may feel like a fool for five minutes, but the person who does not ask remains a fool forever.

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