Six winning questions

Jun 18, 2023

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If you ask great questions, you can guide yourself and your clients through a powerful process of discovery.

You’re sitting in front of your computer trying to piece together a proposal. You have the notes from your first meeting with a prospective client on your desk, which turns out to be a list of quantitative information. This many bedrooms. That many units. This much square footage. That budget. You get the picture.

In that moment, you realize that you’re not connecting with the client because the conversation stays at a superficial level. The list of quantitative and close-ended questions that you ask is forcing you to swim upstream to understand what the client truly desires. The quality of a conversation is grounded in the quality of the questions. And if you ask great questions, you can guide yourself and your client through a powerful process of discovery. But the opposite is also true – shallow questions lead to shallow discoveries.

This took me too long to realize. When I ran my own design studio years ago, I used to lean heavily on quantitative questions and my win rates suffered as a result. After jumping into a business development role and navigating more than 1,000 conversations with architecture and engineering leaders, I’ve come to understand the importance of every single question and the power it has to control a conversation. Now I help firm leaders have effective conversations with their clients by asking the meaningful questions at the right time.

With that in mind, here are six powerful questions that will drive your conversations beyond the surface level:

  1. What made you want to speak with us today? It can be difficult to identify the best way to start talking business, but I’ve found this question to be effective. After you’ve spent some time building rapport at the top of the meeting, this will help get the conversation started around the project or opportunity. More importantly, it gives the prospective client an opportunity to provide context around their decision to pursue working with you. The more context, the better.
  2. Can you help me understand the biggest challenge you and your team/family/company face with your current situation? When you spend a healthy amount of time pursuing prospective clients, it’s easy to forget that there’s a struggle and challenge at the foundation of every decision to start a project. People don’t just wake up and decide to spend seven figures on a design or development project. There has to be a problem. If there’s no problem, then there’s no solution. This question is a great way to begin identifying the superficial challenge so that you can dive deeper into the specifics.
  3. How critical is it that you resolve this challenge? After you’ve spent some time exploring a challenge, this is a great way to understand how important the challenge is to day-to-day operations or long-term goals. Why does that matter? Projects are long. They can feel expensive. You’ll hesitate. Your client will hesitate. And in those moments, you want to be sure that there’s a critical client pain for you to relieve. This will make certain that you and your client always have a reliable reminder to keep the project moving forward.
  4. How would your day look different if this challenge didn’t exist? It’s important to understand what a world without the challenge would mean to your prospective client. How will it impact their day-to-day activities? What will it enable them to do that they can’t do now? Ultimately, if a project and client are a good fit then you want to position your services as the vehicle to get them from their current position to their desired position. But it’s more powerful if that’s embedded in a feeling or emotion rather than a product. This question will help you understand their vision for the desired outcome and the emotions that surround that vision.
  5. What are you planning to invest into this project? This is meant to replace “What’s your budget?” which is my least favorite question of all time. Why? It assumes your client has familiarity with construction costs and processes, understands the value of your services, and is aware of current market trends. That’s a rare trifecta in my experience. By using “investment” instead of “budget” you’re framing the project as a transformation with an endpoint that will benefit the client. The question is also open-ended enough to think beyond the architecture fee. That means the prospective client will likely begin talking about the entire project costs, which is great because your fee is small relative to the total investment.
  6. Is there anything else you think we should know? It’s difficult to cover everything in the brief conversations that precede proposals. Your agenda will always be slightly different than that of your clients or other stakeholders. For those reasons, I’ve found this question to be incredibly beneficial. Sometimes there’s nothing to be added. But other times the client mentions something important to them that wasn’t even on my radar.

So next time you meet with a prospective client, consider sidelining those quantitative questions. Instead, focus on connecting with your client in a personal way that allows you to dive deeper into the challenges and situations that led to their desire to start a project. Not only will you build stronger relationships, but you’ll also win more projects with your ideal clients. 

Tyler Suomala focuses on business development at Monograph. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.