October 20, 2014

Service Businesses: Do You Ask Your Clients the Right Questions?

Service businesses:  listen to your clientsI once went to an expensive hair stylist. I was about to start talking when the stylist already passed judgment.

“Sir, keep your hair long in the front so that you don’t look bald.”

I never went back to that stylist!

If you are in a services business, your customer’s delight depends on your critical capability — the ability to ask the right questions. After a customer awards a project to you and before you ‘do it’ what do you ask her?

If you don’t ask anything, you may use a one-size-fits-all solution. Your clients don’t get what they want. They get what you have. If you ask the right questions, you can understand what the client wants; she feels listened to and you connect with the client.

There’s another important reason. Most solutions you give your clients tend to be within a range — a range of cost, a range of time, a range of quality, and a range of scale. And results and what it costs your customer vary wildly if you assume, instead of asking the client what exactly she needs.

The right thing to do is to ask. Take your own business scenario, and you could ask the following questions to start with:

  • What are you trying to accomplish? (maybe you can suggest an alternative)
  • What are your key priorities (quality, time lines, budget?)
  • What is your budget?
  • When do you want the deliverables and are time lines negotiable? You could tell the client if it saves money or improve quality with delayed deliverables.
  • Can you point to samples that you think are good?

Asking questions gives you an opportunity to listen.  I had earlier written about how to lock in your clients by listening to them. Stan Christensen, an expert in negotiation, says that in negotiation (which is what you do every day with your clients) listening can be very persuasive. Below is the video about listening in negotiation. Hope you enjoy it!

(You can also listen to the full length podcast of his presentation.)

In a service business, asking the right questions is not a one-time activity. You have to do that EVERY time you have a new client or a new project. So you may as well build that into your process. That helps repeat success.

I enjoy asking questions and knowing others’ perspective. In addition, it helps me deliver higher quality of service.

What do you ask clients? How does that help you in your business?

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Chaitanya SagarChaitanya Sagar is the Co-Founder and CEO of p2w2, an online marketplace for services like writing, software, graphic design, virtual assistance, business consulting and research. Chaitanya blogs at p2w2 blog. He is fascinated by entrepreneurship and the difference technology can make in people’s lives.

14 Comments ▼

Chaitanya Sagar


Chaitanya Sagar Chaitanya Sagar is the Founder and CEO of Perceptive Analytics, an emerging company in the field of Data Analytics that helps businesses make better decisions. He has the experience of serving 300+ clients from medium to large companies in the US, India, Australia, Europe and Middle East. Chaitanya holds an MBA from the Indian School of Business, a school highly ranked by Financial Times.

14 Reactions

  1. Ask questions and LISTEN to the answers…

  2. You’re right is mentioning that asking questions of a new client helps you to connect to that person in a more personalized manner. Not to mention that they feel more comfortable with you and therefore more confident in your business.

    Martin is right too that you need to actually listen to the answers they give you. If they tell you what they want and you don’t do it, that’s a sure fire way of losing those clients because they will feel that you don’t value them.

  3. A wise woman I know summarized this for me many years ago when she said:

    “You can get your way more often when you have more than one way.”

    This is true in all areas of life, not just client service.

  4. Asking the right questions is important. But sometimes, a client doesn’t want or have time to tell you exactly what to do – they just want you to use your expertise to get the job done.

    The first question is if they want you to handle everything or if they want you to do something specific.

  5. I like the fact that you used the hairstylist experience here as an example. I can totally relate to that. I’ve gone through tons of them and the main reason for that is because – they do what THEY want with my hair, regardless of what I’ve told them what I want. It never fails, I go home looking like a french poodle, washing it out and attempting to repair what I consider to be their damage.

    It’s a great example of how not to be. When I leave their establishments, I feel like I’ve paid way to much for something I didn’t even ask for. And I never return.

    I’ve found a dependable one though. And why do I like this particular hairstylist? Because she does what I want. She gives me color choices and I pick. We have a discussion about exactly what I want and she gives me options to choose from. If I bring in a photo, she brings it to life. I leave getting exactly what I wanted – and am even willing to pay a bit more for it because of that.

    It’s a great example someone really willing to provide YOU with a service – that YOU wanted and will leave feeling pleased about.

  6. First of all, I want to say thanks to the article. Even though it goes into one of the basics of running a service business, sometimes people just don’t ask the questions. Of course you have to listen to the answers they give, I didn’t feel that was a question. Also there are times when the client just doesn’t know what they want and that will be the time to show your experience and propose ideas that you think they will want.

  7. I wonder, can you ever go too far overboard on asking questions? In other words, can a service provider ask so many questions that clients feel aggravated by what they consider too much talk and not enough action fast enough?

    Where do you draw the line? Or is that a case of looking into your client’s eyes to see when they start getting restless?

    Or have I asked too many questions here? :)

  8. As a Web Developer I always ask questions very similar to what you have listed.

    What are the main objectives?
    I then try to visualize what a finished product will look and behave like, and ask questions that get me to that point.

    Do you need the ability to edit the site yourself with little or no knowledge?
    This will give me a direction as far as cost and time involved.

    What it is your budget?
    I sometimes have to dance around this one. It is real easy to scare off a potential client if I ask about money before I have all the details.

    How would you like people to arrive at your site?
    This is an SEO question. Not all sites require SEO services.

    Those are four base questions that I may ask. I like your priorities questions and may adapt those. I can see where they may give me a clearer picture as to what a client may want to accomplish.

    Nice post.

  9. Martin, Amanda, Sheryl, Chris, Scott, thanks for your comment.

    Brent, Anita, I have seen a few clients who either don’t have time or think it’s too much ‘need for instructions’ when you ask questions. But these are more for ‘run-of-the-mill’ type services. I think asking too many questions (specially if in installments) is NOT a good thing. Asking questions at one go (unless the mystery unravels slowly) and only to the extent needed (only experience can teach what is appropriate). I guess that’s why this post is about asking the *right* questions. :)

    But I must say, I have seen more projects failed because the Professional has failed to ask the right questions than the ones where too many questions were asked and the client was put off by that.

    Chaitanya
    http://www.p2w2.com

  10. @anita
    I’ve asked too many questions on occasion. I’ve also asked too few. Rarely, but it still happens. Many of the people that come to me want a quote now, now, NOW! It can be a delicate exercise in getting them to sit down and tell us what they need so we can do that.

  11. For me, questions are progressive (and not necessarily all in the same meeting). So early on I might ask, what are your company’s growth plans for the next 2 (or 3) years; how do you plan to reach that objective; is finding the right employee a limitation on your growth, and so on. I’m trying to uncover what the clients needs are – often they don’t know that they need my solution – until we’ve had some discussion and begun to build a relationship. Asking the right questions helps to validate your ability to deliver the solution.

  12. Great insights, chaitanya. I agree this is something that we should really practice. Asking question is a quest for knowledge. I love asking questions because I often ended filled with insights and lessons. :)

  13. Hi chaitanya, I agree with how important asking the right questions is, not only in business, but in all aspects of life.

    I have a question though. For example, you have set an hour appointment with your client. How many minutes of your hour appointment should you consume in asking questions that you think is justifiable in your client’s point of view?

  14. Mary,

    I am not sure if I will be able to give a straight jacketed answer to your question. It depends on the current need for information. The question is, you have to have the judgment as to how much information is sufficient in your context to deliver the project successfully to delight the customer.

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