Business Development Questions: the lost art

Business Development Questions

A couple of years ago, I became aware that I’m terrible at asking questions. This realisation came like a shock to me. The reason, I failed terribly in asking well-structured business development questions and never saw it as an issue.

A lot of ideas in my mind was mere untested assumptions. As a result, I seldom explored our product hypothesis by asking business development questions. During a meeting, I would absorb all the information coming my way and analyse it at the speed of light and respond with a solution. Even before my interlocutor finished speaking.

How did we lose the art?

I soon realised, engineers are conditioned to provide solutions, not to ask questions. However, this lack of business development questioning skills is not limited to engineers. For instance, accountants, business managers and scientists are also struggling with moving from a solution-driven to a probing mindset.

On the other hand, some professions are exceptionally well equipped in asking questions, like lawyer, journalists and psychologists.

Looking back at how curious toddlers are and the number of questions they ask, the mystery deepens on why and where we lost the ability to ask probing business development question? It may have something to do with our education system. Frequently, teachers rewarded correct answers and not the asking of well-formulated questions. In your professional life, you may find the same tendency.

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” – Voltaire

Introverts and Business Development Questions

We can all learn the art of asking business development questions and is even more true for introverts. Introverts are known to be great listeners, an essential part of extracting value from business development questions. Therefore, combing listening and questioning skills can be an excellent asset for introverts.

In many cases, well formulated business development questions will put you in the proverbial “driving seat” of the conversation. As a result, it will allow you to navigate the discussion to the desired outcome.

The value of asking Business Development Questions

Business development leaders that do have the ability to ask the right questions can get to the bottom of a matter much quicker — allowing them to make quick decisions without wasting to much time.

Well formulated questions will also show that you do care about understanding the needs and solving the problems under discussion. Above all, it can even show compassion and empathy. In this case, business development questions are a crucial tool in formulating relationships and building trust.

Most importantly, questioning can also help to lead a person to a solution that will solve their needs. In this case, the person will be more likely to adapt to the proposal under discussion as they have a share in the solution.

Four Types of Business Development Questions

Business Development Questions - four types of questions
Four types of questions to achieve business development questioning goals.

In Learning the Art of Asking Questions, Tom Pohlmann and Neethi Mary Thomas identified four types of questions that can be useful in a business development process: 

  • Elevating questions provide the context to the issue under discussion.
  • Adjoining questions are general gap questions used to explore the issue under discussion.
  • Funnelling questions provide more focus to understand the root cause of a problem. 
  • Clarifying questions are great to eliminate confusion on the topic under discussion.

Three Phases of a Business Development Conversation

Consider a typical engagement with a possible client or business partner. First of all, you have no idea on where to start the sales conversation, but you do know that an aggressive sales pitch will not work neither will it suit your introvert personality. However, by following a few simple rules, you can guide the conversation with business development questions to reach the desired goal.

Business Development Questions - the process
The three phases of leading with business development questions.

The Diagnostic Phase

The goal of this phase is to understand the general needs of the customer and the challenges they face.

Understand the context of the business challenges

Start with elevating questions to understand the broader context of the issue under discussion. Ask general explorative questions. 

Let us explore the challenges you experience doing […]?” 

Tell me about the challenge you face when […]?

Get behind the real issues

Get a deeper appreciation for the issues under discussion by asking funnelling questions. Try to discover problems ignored during the first part of this phase. 

“Do you have these challenging conditions due to [name a few possibilities]?”

Confirm your diagnosis

Confirm what you heard by asking clarifying questions to avoid miscommunication and assumptions. 

“Do I understand you correctly that […]?”

“So the reason for your problems is […]?”

The Impact Analysis Phase

The next step in business development questioning is to understand the impact of the challenges on the various business activities.

Learn the consequences of the challenges

Explore with elevating questions how broad the impact of the specific challenge or need is. The idea is to get an understanding of the consequences of the problems, internal and external to the organisation. 

“What are the larger trends in your organisation due to [repeat challenge or needs]?”

“Besides yourself, who is impacted [repeat challenge or pain] and how are they impacted?”

Understand the extent of the challenges

Understand the depth of the impact due to the current challenge or problem by asking specific funnelling questions. Try to discover the effect on each aspect of the business.

“Are these [challenge or problem] causing [name specific impact]?”

“Have [name challenge] impacted your [financial, operational, production] performance?”

“Did you miss any [operational, financial, productions] commitments?”

Confirm your view of the impact of the problems

Conclude this phase again with a clarifying question to confirm your assumptions on the impact of the challenges.

“From what I just heard [repeat who and how] it sounds that this problem impacts your organisation on the following levels […]?”

Capabilities Matching Phase

The goal of the last part of the business developing questioning phases is to match your capabilities with the organisation’s needs. This part mainly uses funnelling questions to steer the conversation into a direction where the organisation will accept a proposal.

Uncover the willingness to take action

Get a good understanding of what actions they are currently implementing to address these challenges and how far they will go to solve their problems. 

“What is it going to take you to address this [challenge or need]?” 

“What initiative do you have in place to improve [financial, operational, or production] performance?” Would you be interested in some other ideas?”

Discover the the actions that will make them move

The next step is to get an appreciation of what kind of proposal they will consider. This part will identify the willingness to address the problems.

“What if there were a way to improve [financial, operational, or production] performance by [name a number or percentage], would that help?”

“What if you were also able to increase [abc] by [xyz], so you could [reduce, improve, decrease]? How would that help?”

The ask: put your willingness to assist on the table

Conclude the conversation with a clarifying and specific call to action question. 

“From what you have told me if you had the ability to [summarise capability vision] you could solve your [repeat challenge, need or problem]?”

“I am confident that we could assist you in obtaining those capabilities, do you see any reason not to work with us?”

“If we provide you with a proposal to address these [name challenges], will your organisation consider it?”

In today’s world, we do tend to show our capabilities and rush to solutions and conclusions in a wink. It is as if there’s an urgency driving us. The value in slowing down, get a look under the proverbial hood, and understanding the real issue at hand is invaluable. In conclusion, business development questioning demands a bit of vulnerability, but the results could be immense.

“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.” ― Richard Feynman

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