Several years ago Fred Reichheld, among others, began working on a conversation and a system that would prompt organizations to rethink clients / customer relationships.

In his book, The Ultimate Question (now available in an updated 2.0 version), the discussion zeroes in on what the author defines as the ultimate measure of loyalty — whether a client would recommend you / your work to a friend.

The discussion of how to quantify loyalty outlined in these volumes precipitated important conversations. Satisfaction, while critical, should not be mistaken for enduring relationship. Appreciation and allegiance do not necessarily equate to advocacy or evangelism.

Reichheld’s work is a must-read for anyone serious about gauging customer engagement and the client experience.

But for any service enterprise intent on conspiring to create or deepen relationships, there is another question. The answer cannot be scaled one-to-ten. It doesn’t elicit a simple “yes” or “no.”

The ultimate business development question is rooted in a different value system – the economics of listening – or, as Bob Garfield termed it, Listenomics.

The question has consequences. And enormous potential.

The Question

Specific articulation will vary depending on the situation; but here is the essence.

What do you wish a firm / a company (like ours) would do that we’re not currently doing? What should we be focusing on? If you could design it, what would our working relationship look like?

It is a simple question; but the response can be disruptive. Eliminating the nonsensical – “cut your rates by 70%” or “give away your product, portfolio or expertise” – and suggestions will likely center on the need to innovate…to meet the realities of a volatile market with new thinking. New solutions.

There are plenty of reasons to resist: the market doesn’t understand the realities of our business model…clients don’t always know what best serves them…and what about unforeseen risks.

On the upside, there are the rewards. Like the differentiation and loyalty afforded a business partner.

If you wrestle with how to engage your targets or clients, ask the question. But be prepared. Asking implies an interest in the ensuing conversation.