Much too often, business owners and salespeople eagerly run off to complete assignments given to us by employees, prospects, or clients. We are asked for something, we feel like we should know how to provide it, and we eagerly set to work trying to produce something that might please them.

My experience is that it pays big dividends to slow things down by asking many clarifying questions. Exactly what information will satisfy a prospect who is looking for a reference? Or comparable experience? Or assurance of financial stability? How much ownership or participation in an eventual sale will satisfy a key employee? What commission, recognition, or work/life adjustment will motivate our best salesperson?

My CEO executive coaching group members have learned that the first question to ask when a member brings one of these situations is, “Did you ask her what she wants?” And, “What would happen if she got that?”

Ask a few good questions before accepting a homework assignment from anyone.

The power of genuine curiosity even extends to setting prices. I got a call from a large organization asking my price to facilitate a meeting. I had never delivered a service exactly like that for such an organization. Most people would have just taken a shot in the dark and hoped to come up with the right amount to propose. Instead I said, “You have a lot more experience purchasing this sort of thing than I have pricing it. Could you share with me what you’ve budgeted for this project?” He suggested a figure higher than I would have asked. I told him I could do it for that, though I would prefer a better fee. He came back a few days later, with a P.O. for 20% more than his original number. My best guess would have been too low–twice.

I have a simple rule about proposals:
I hate to write, but
I am happy to take dictation.

When a prospect asks for documentation or proof, ask them what they need to see. Maybe they have a preferred format for continuity plans or financial statements? Or samples of winning documents? Perhaps there is one key piece of data or a promise that would help them be satisfied. It frequently happens that the prospect simply does not want to do business with you and the information request is only a veiled, “No.” If so, find out now by asking specific questions, before engaging in the money-burning fire drill of preparing a document.

Many people find my blog post, One More Question…, useful for learning how to ask better questions at the right time.