Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers ~Tony Robbins
In the ideal world, we would all have all the answers. Every brand manager would know when and how to launch a new product, why some ideas click and some don’t, and why consumers prefer one brand over another. Innovations would address real needs, advertising would convey the message effectively, every movie would be a hit, and behavioural analysts would find themselves out of work.
But we don’t live in the ideal world, and businesses face questions that cannot be answered internally – and to which the answers must be sought outside. An international brand making a foray into a new market – and needing a thorough understanding of the target audience; a declining business in need of urgent corrective action; a service provider seeking feedback from its users; a company seeking to understand reasons for employee satisfaction or dissatisfaction, a sales manager needing to know the customer pain points, to name a few examples.
Asking questions is usually considered such a mundane, everyday task that not much thought is given to it – and yet asking questions from a business perspective is different from grilling friends about their latest romantic interest. It is THE primary data collection tool and there is a need for effective, efficient and sensible probing within a limited time, with an audience that is unfamiliar and un-obliged to respond. The need is to get it right the first time around, as the opportunity to meet and interact with the target audience may not recur.
Here are some important pointers to bear in mind while asking questions:
Pointer #1: Prepare and prioritize
Spend time in making a draft questionnaire or discussion flow that will cover all that you wish to ask. During a discussion it is easy to go off track and lose valuable time if one is not careful. Be clear about what it is that you need to know and in how much detail – and if it is possible within your available time-frame. Identify your highest priority questions and prepare to give them the most time.
Pointer #2: Stay unbiased
If one wishes to elicit truthful, frank and honest responses, it is critical remain clearly neutral and unbiased. This makes the respondents feel non-threatened, understood, and not judged. An interviewer whose biases are obvious runs the risk of alienating the respondents – which can result in them becoming defensive, hostile, clamped up, or posturing (saying what they think the interviewer wants to hear).
Pointer #3: Remember the objectives
An in-depth understanding of a subject is usually the goal, and it requires deep probing. This needs skill and alertness. To skim the surface without getting into the depth of the matter is an easy trap to fall into. A long and wordy response may contain little information or detail that one needs, and yet it can trick an interviewer into feeling that he has acquired enough insight. The following example illustrates the point:
Interviewer: I believe you did not like the xyz burger at this outlet. Could you please tell me what was wrong?
Respondent: Yes, I did not like it. It was totally bland, and in fact I don’t think it was fresh.
Interviewer: Could you please elaborate?
Respondent: I usually like the xyz burger and always ask for it, but today I was so disappointed – it didn’t look good at all. And then I ate it and again I didn’t like it at all. Since I have had it before I know how good it can be and definitely today it was not fresh. It’s a real shame, because I feel I wasted my money and I don’t think I would like to come back here any time soon.
Interviewer: I see. I’m very sorry you had a bad experience here. Thank you for your feedback. I will convey it to the manager, and I assure you that the issues you have raised will be looked into immediately.
It may be seem obvious now reading the above excerpt that interviewer could – and indeed should – have probed better at understanding the consumer’s expectations and definitions of ‘fresh’. The responses are vague and generic, and do not present any actionable insight about the product, which could have been avoided with correct questioning.
Pointer #4: Actively Listen
And by this I mean – listen really closely. Small details can lead up to significant insights’ if one can identify them. Much understanding of a consumer and his/her behavioural motivations can be had by understanding his background information– provided one is able to hold the different pieces together and work out the correlation between them. This takes practice and clarity of thought and the ability to mentally bookmark relevant information.
Pointer #5: Mind your language
And lastly – the old adage is true indeed: how you say (ask) something is often as important if not more – as what you say (ask). A conversational style is more likely to be more effective than a stern school-teacher style that makes the respondent feel like they are being grilled. Choice of words can vastly impact the tonality of the questions and therefore the response they elicit. Aim to replace the threatening ‘why’ with the gentler – if longer – options such as ‘what makes you say/ feel that?’ or ‘could you please explain/ elaborate?’ Be encouraging by use of phrases like ‘I understand’ (or ‘I don’t understand’ – as the need may be). If possible paraphrase – to ensure (for your own benefit) and convey (to the respondent) that you have indeed listened and understood. Be polite, sensitive and appreciative, and see the most reluctant of respondents opening up to you.
Apart from getting you the solutions you seek for your business, asking questions shows interest and involvement – which does wonders for your professional image among employers, clients and customers. Once you develop the knack of asking the right questions, you will find yourself connecting to people and engaging with ease, having conversations about the various things, and coming across new opportunities for career advancement and personal growth.
Today’s post (and accompanying photo) is a contribution from Renu Singh. Renu’s specialty lies in asking the right questions. She has a decade of experience in Brand Consultancy, Consumer Research and Social Media Marketing – having worked for and with leading brands in categories like FMCG, foods, telecom, media, retail, tobacco and automobiles. She is also a life explorer and does wonders in finding answers through her lens. You can see some of her beautiful work here.
How do you prepare yourself to ask the right questions? Have you taken professional help in this area? Did it work? We would love to hear back from you.