What are you trying to make happen in your business?

Store managers are not measured by how tired they are when they come home at night. They are measured and rewarded by their ability to give the stockholders an optimal return on their investment. When an organization falls short of its goals, it’s not unusual for a consultant to be asked to take a critical look at the business.

When I am invited to conduct a consulting assignment for a client company, the title of this article is one of the very first questions I ask. The first thing I need to know is what priorities the manager sees as most critical.

I believe owners and senior managers will find the following exercise to be eye-opening, so before going to the expense of hiring a consultant, you may wish to ask these kinds of questions of key associates. Keep a copy of both the questions and answers in a safe place so you can easily locate them, pull them out and periodically remind yourself of the specific priorities that management should be focusing on.

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As a consultant, it’s my job to help my clients solve problems that cause them to practically pull their hair out. The solutions are not always apparent. Like a physician, I begin by looking for the symptoms I can uncover by asking both managers and key associates a series of questions. My experience has been that solutions to most of the challenges managers face lie in the hearts and minds of the key associates, so this is why I begin a consulting assignment with a series of in-depth interviews.

I believe it’s important the way the questions I ask are framed. The number one rule is to make the questions open-ended. When I do ask a question that can be answered with a yes or a no, I try to always ask for an example to make sure I am not reading something into the person’s answer that’s not really there. I ask questions such as:

•    What’s preventing you from…?
•    What’s standing between you and …?
•    If it were not for ________________, are you telling me you believe you could achieve the desired outcome?
•    What are several of the obstacles you are facing in your attempt to achieve your goals?
•    How so…?
•    How do you believe your job is measured?
•    What do you believe you have to accomplish in measurable terms to earn a significantly larger raise than you would normally receive?
•    How would you describe the relationship between you and your supervisor? Perhaps you could begin by explaining how he/she manages you.

Since gross margin is an example of a business topic I am asked a lot of questions about, I would design questions about a specific topic that are much more direct:

•    Do you know how the company arrives at sell prices?
•    Based on your experience here, who all appears to you to have pricing authority?
•    What sort of training or coaching have you found to be most effective in improving your ability to overcome pricing objections?
•    If you were put in charge of gross margin control, what are the first two or three things you would do differently to more positively influence the company’s gross margin?

When interviewing salespeople, you may wish to ask questions along these lines:

•    What sales books have you read that have made the biggest difference in your ability to overcome the obstacles salespeople encounter?
•    What technique(s) have you found to be most effective at getting a prospect to do business with you?
•    Can you think of any valid criticisms that have been made about your selling style?
•    Where does price rank among the obstacles you face in selling prospective customers?

I wrote this article because I am so often asked what kinds of questions owners and senior managers should be asking their key associates to uncover opportunities to improve performance. I hope those of you who are seeking more insight into your respective organizations will find these ideas helpful.

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