Want to develop your business? Ask smarter questions

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How to ask better business questionsThis is a follow-up to my post from a few weeks ago on how to ask better business questions, which focused on techniques to start a conversation with potential contacts.

But what about times when you’ve been having a business development conversation and suddenly, you feel the reigns may be slipping from your hands? What can you do to get back into the saddle and keep riding?

That’s what’s happening with a project I’m chasing where I know the fit is excellent. So I walked the talk and took my own advice on how to ask better questions.

Round one: Good questions start a good conversation

A few weeks ago, I was contacted through a referral for a large project. Instincts told me this was good, very good.

We set a date and time for a first meeting. And I prepped for it thoroughly, drawing up a 3-page brief questionnaire.

The two-hour exchange went well. Dynamics were good, exchanges lively and frank. We worked through page one of my list of questions. For the next step, we agreed I’d take part in a team brainstorming session the following week. I’d passed round one of what I sensed would be a long process. 

Changes behind the scenes

A few days before the brainstorming session, I send a quick confirmation email.

And in return, I received a surprising note saying it’s canceled. They have more prep work to do, are still putting together a team and they’ll let me know what they decide.

“Oh shit darn!” I mumbled. “Now what do I do?” The conversation channels were closing and that’s never positive.

Round 2: Smart questions co-write the script

Made myself a cup of coffee, paced around a bit, moaned some, cursed too, put on some mood-settling and uplifting music (now can’t remember what, but it did help) and thought about my choices.

  1. Do nothing

    The email did not invite a response. “We’ll let you know what we decide” is not “we’ll keep you updated on our progress”.

    Doing nothing would be comfortable, I wouldn’t put myself “out there”, it wouldn’t be risky.

    Doing nothing would be passive and give me no information. Worse, what would it signal to my prospect? That I cave in at the first obstacle? That I wasn’t that interested?

  2. Email back

    And say what? Thanks for letting me know? Keep me posted on how the project evolves? Don’t hesitate to contact me if I can be of any help?

    Yawn. Insipid. Not a heck of a lot better than doing nothing. The prospect might not reply.

  3. Call

    Picking up the phone was the only viable alternative to get a feel for where they were and stay in the loop.

    You can’t improvise this kind of call.I grabbed a sheet of paper and made 2 columns: questions to avoid and questions that would give me more insight.

    It looked a bit like this:

    [wpcol_1half id=”” class=”” style=””]Nowhere questions

    Why did you cancel the session? (whiny)
    How did I do in the meeting? (insecurity)
    Am I still in the running? (navel oriented)
    What other info do you need? (let me make you love me)
    When will you decide? (impatience)[/wpcol_1half] [wpcol_1half_end id=”” class=”” style=””]Smarter questions

    What are the key issues you need to focus on to progress?
    What came out of our meeting?
    How can I assist you in moving the strategy forward?
    What would be the first step in our working together?[/wpcol_1half_end] 

The plot and protagonists shift

These open questions favored a rich dialog. Turns out the questions I’d asked at the meeting 1) influenced to a degree how they were organizing the project and 2) shifted their view of my potential role in it.

I’m still in the saddle, but I may have changed horses and the race I want to win has taken a new turn.

Would I have known that otherwise? I doubt it. At worst, the competition might have been over and at best I’d be striving to win the wrong race.

Take away

Learning how to ask better questions is a key business development and project management skill. 

I’m thinking about designing a workshop to help other independent professionals pick up those reflexes to improve their positioning and grow their business. If the idea appeals to you, drop me a line in the comments, we’ll see how we can work it out.

And meanwhile, tell us: What’s the best business question you ever asked and what difference did it make?



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Comments: 14

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  • Yes Patricia, please DO organize a workshop: I will definitely sign up!

    • Cool! We need to get at least 8 people interested, who’d work in teams of 2, to get this off the ground and make it viable. Participants could be professional translators and independent professionals from other fields. The workshop could be in English, in French or both 🙂 What could you do to spur interest?

  • Great idea Patricia! I really need to learn how to ask better and smarter questions.
    I’ll spread the word.

    • Thanks Sophie! Would be terrific if we could get a mix of linguists, graphic designers and small business consultants interested > different experiences and questioning needs combined with some useful IRL networking.

  • Je suis partante aussi pour l’atelier 🙂

  • Wonderful! Five more to get the minimum needed and we can start working on logistics. Let’s get other independent professionals involved too!

    And, to give you all an update on my horse race: I’ve been invited to another meeting, after which I’ll have to prepare a proposal for a different set of services than those originally envisaged. That phone call was effective. The questions re-framed and re-launched the dialog. Wish me luck!

  • Hi Patricia,
    First of all, I do wish you good luck!
    I’ve found your blog recently and have been following it since then. Always great articles, congratulations!
    I was just talking to a translator and friend the other day about the subject of smart questions and how to reach the client. Your post is so good I am going to make a reference to it in my own blog, I think as much people as possible should read it.

  • Oh, I also think the workshop is a great idea! Depending on when and where, here is one more to the group.

    • Welcome, Bete! Glad you found the blog and thank you for the positive feedback on the articles! If they can help others, then the effort is worth it.
      I’m thrilled the idea of a workshop appeals to you too. Things are getting on a roll 🙂

  • sil

    The workshop is an excellent idea!! 🙂

  • If you organize a workshop, please count me in !
    (Sorry, I am not a graphic designer, but still another freelance translator 😉 )
    Thanks for your precious advice, as usual.

    • Génial! I’ve put out some feelers and there is interest in getting this set up. I’ll be back with concrete news when I have some.

  • Great idea for the workshop. I can think of a number of translators/writers who’d be interested. Keep us posted!

  • Hello Patricia!

    I am also very interested!
    It just depends on the dates, hope I’ll be in france when the workshop takes place.