In this three-part series of articles, author Marshall Atkinson helps you generate new ideas to find and land new customers. The first article discussed the power of collaboration; the second explored using randomness in your ideation process. Below, Part 3 of “The Idea Generator” explains the most powerful tool of all for mining new ideas: asking questions.
- Asking questions and getting answers from multiple points of view helps generate innovative ideas. Question your customers, their customers, your supply chain and any other stakeholders involved in a project or sale.
- Brainstorming as many questions as you can before meeting with a customer can transform you from an order-taker into a problem-solver. By asking questions, you’ll be able to dig deeper into your customer’s true needs, building their trust and making them feel confident that you can fulfill those needs and solve their problems.
- Asking questions can help you challenge assumptions that hold your business back. Use questioning to uncover potential problems, discover new opportunities and find new ways to do things.
If you own a B2B business, asking questions is probably part of your sales process. But are you asking enough questions — and asking the right questions? Most B2B businesses spend a lot of time selling to the customer, not discovering exactly how they can serve the client best. Whether it’s a simple product order or a complex IT project, using a question-based idea-generation system can unlock a lot of opportunities.
Focus on the Right Questions
The problem with searching for answers is that often, you and/or your customer come into a conversation preloaded with what you think is the right answer. Instead, as the initial part of the exercise, try having a conversation where you spend time listing all the questions that should be asked.
Don’t worry about the answers. First, list the questions that should be part of the discussion. Your goal should be to discover all the angles that should be discussed from different perspectives, including:
- Your client’s point of view
- Their customer’s outlook
- Your point of view
- The viewpoint of your vendors, suppliers other stakeholders in the process
Even though you’re all working on the same project, everyone’s role may be different, and each stakeholder may have unique timelines, needs, wants or rules.
An Old Idea for Getting New Ideas
Thomas Edison pioneered the idea of gathering teams of people for his laboratory, known as an “invention factory,” in 1876. His teams consisted of people with different backgrounds — artists, plumbers, craftsmen, engineers and recent college grads.
He wanted the teams to view the problems he was trying to solve from diverse perspectives to find creative solutions. Using this method, he patented 1,093 different inventions and transformed the way industrial research and development was accomplished.
Involving people with different viewpoints to examine a challenge can generate better results than relying on a homogenous group. People who aren’t “experts” in a topic don’t know what they don’t know, so they’re more apt to challenge conventional wisdom and point out the elephants in the room. Instead of doing the same thing, they’ll generate something new.
Starter Questions to Try
Maybe you’re fortunate to have a diverse team of people at your disposal. Maybe it’s just you and your client in a conference room. Either way, begin brainstorming new ideas by posing some starter questions to prime the pump for other questions to follow. Try these initial questions:
- What’s currently working that needs to remain in place?
- What’s not working that needs to change?
- What does success look like?
- What does failure look like?
- Describe the goal. What result needs to be achieved?
This line of questioning is what separates problem-solvers from order-takers. When you use questions to help generate ideas, you are working in your customers’ best interest, not simply trying to sell them something.
Think of it as discovery. Good selling isn’t about the transactional part of the process, which often is, “How many and how much?” Instead, it’s about getting to the truth of what will best help the customer. This builds trust and enhances the value you bring to the process, while also relieving the customer’s anxiety.
Brainstorm with Questions
Here’s an exercise that may help you with your next customer. For everyone involved, try to ask as many questions as you possibly can in five minutes. That’s right; don’t worry about the answers. Rather, focus only on the questions.
Write them down on a legal pad, whiteboard or note-taking app as you go. Reel these questions off as quickly as you can think of them. It’s brainstorming, so there are no wrong questions to pose. Just keep listing them.
Any effort spent trying to find answers will only obstruct your thinking. Just jot down the questions; answers can come later. Be sure to consider how different people or stakeholders associated with the challenge may view the situation and what questions they would ask.
- What would your end customer ask?
- In your company, what questions might your staff ask?
- Think about your supply chain. What questions would they pose?
- Are there other stakeholders involved? What would they ask?
- Use basic question words such as “who,” “what,” “where,” “why” and “how.”
If you feel stuck, come back to this challenge later. Sometimes your brain keeps working on the challenge, which is why plenty of people have that “Eureka!” moment in the shower or while mopping the floor.
Examine Your Questions
Next, look at all the questions you wrote down. Do they reveal any new avenues you could explore? Take special note of questions that may illuminate a potential hazard or something to avoid.
Do any questions on the list stand out as particularly important? This could be a deadline, or a financial or supply question. Put these at the top of the list to discuss first with your customer.
Put an asterisk or star next to the questions that are particularly intriguing. This helps you rank and sort them from the rest on the list.
Remember, your goal with question-based idea generation isn’t to think about why you can’t do something, but how you can do it. The questions will uncover discussion points that aren’t obvious, so you can begin working on the solutions much earlier in the process.
Your job is to challenge assumptions. Have you ever started a meeting with a customer and, later, been amazed that your original idea when you scheduled the meeting wasn’t valid? Thinking of as many questions as possible before you meet with customers helps facilitate better understanding and discussions about what matters most to them.
Not all of the questions from your brainstorming session need to be answered; some simply serve as steppingstones to larger questions or deeper avenues of attack.
Practice Makes Perfect
When you consistently go to the gym to work out, you get stronger and healthier. The same is true of using the question-based approach for dealing with new projects, new customers or idea generation. The more you practice asking questions, the better you will become at it.
Questions work because before you can begin solving a particular problem, it helps to completely define what you’re doing. To become better at questioning, create a safe space for it to occur. Be open, honest and willing to follow where the questions lead you. That’s where the powerful answers live.
This article is adapted from a piece initially published by Impressions Magazine. Marshall Atkinson, owner of Atkinson Consulting LLC, is a decorated-apparel industry production and efficiency expert who focuses on operational efficiency; continuous improvement and workflow strategy; business planning; employee motivation; management; and sustainability. He also co-founded a decorated-apparel industry sales and marketing education company called Shirt Lab. For more information or to comment on this article, email Marshall at firstname.lastname@example.org.