IMG_0086The game show Jeopardy has had it right all along — knowing the right question is the way to win big.

Conventional wisdom argues the point. And most of the time we buy into the argument.

In virtually every venue — from personal relationships to building a productive professional network, from pitching a pizza franchise to marketing a law firm or consulting practice — we invest mightily in dispensing answers.

Some will argue that market research is all about asking questions and listening. Legitimate point.

But let’s be honest: much of the time what passes for market research is really about gaining insight into the best way to position what we’ve already decided to take to market. What features should be emphasized? What words turn our targets off? How do we capture imagination and motivate?

Valuable. But the focus is on how we deliver our message. So convinced are we that powerful motivation derives from having all the answers, that our questions don’t accomplish near what they might. Never mind inspire or motivate.

Doubt this? Calculate the value of resources invested in designing, debating and redesigning the messages and tools used to tout qualifications to targets. Compare this to the ROI on our messaging efforts.

Now consider how many quality conversations have been generated by all of your messaging efforts.

This isn’t a metric most of us track; but we’d do well to start. The right questions instigate on-going dialogue.

A Better Conversation

Most professional service firms recognize and tout the value of relationships. Entire go-to-market strategies have been based on what it takes to become trusted advisors.

Yet, when presented with an opportunity for conversation or collaboration, how often is our default response the tried and stale approach to dispensing all the answers.

If you want to change the dynamics of a relationship, begin changing the nature of the conversations you have. Find a way to collaborate around a couple of key questions, and you’ll find yourself on the verge of changing the entire game.

Questions As Differentiators

In many professional service arenas (including legal) research indicates that mugh of the time the audience assumes you have some level of expertise. Put another way — your target likely assumes you have a lot of the answers, and can get to the ones you might not know. (Granted…we’d prefer they believe we have all the answers, but let’s get real…)

One of the easiest ways to differentiate in a crowded and competitive market is by resisting the temptation to always talk about what we know, and focus on the right question(s). There is always at least one.

If your product or service is the undisputed leader in a market, you may be able to slide by for who-knows-how-long. But check business school case studies these days. You’ll find more than a handful of postmortems on once venerable market giants who failed to ask the right questions of the marketplace.

The market is always delivering a critical message. The key to business development success is knowing how to engage. If touting answers isn’t doing the job, try posing a question or two. And being astute enough to be quiet, and listen.