Inquiry First: How Consultative Questions Open Doors For Our Expertise

Jennifer Brown | |

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In this minisode, Jennifer discusses the importance of asking consultative questions during the sales process. She reveals some of the questions from JBC’s powerful prospective client questionnaire and the thinking behind each question. Discover an empowering way to think about the sales process and why sales is a crucial aspect to ushering in positive change.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • Why the sales process is crucial for both internal and external clients
  • How consultative questions can help with the sales process
  • How to get a better understanding of the urgency of the client’s problem
  • How to identify the key stakeholders within an organization
  • The importance of helping the client define what success looks like for them
  • How and why you need to be flexible as a consultant
  • What you need to know about the current state of senior leadership before enrolling a new client
  • How to embed change into the DNA of an organization
  • An empowering way to look at sales and the sales process

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

DOUG FORESTA: Hello, and welcome back to The Will to Change, this is Doug Foresta. I am with Jennifer Brown. Today, we’re going to be talking about something that’s very interesting if you’re a D&I practitioner – the sales process. Specifically, we’re going to be talking about the intake part of the sales process. Jennifer, welcome.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks, Doug.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you so much. You were kind enough to share with me this really powerful prospective client questionnaire that you use. During our conversation today, we’re going to go through a piece of that.

Before we do that, I want to ask you: What led you to create this client questionnaire? Can you say a little bit about the intake sales process as a D&I practitioner?

JENNIFER BROWN: Sure thing. Doug, I have always not only been a consultant on the technical side, but, of course, I’m a business developer and a sales person.

DOUG FORESTA: And this was your company before you had any team, you had to do all of this yourself, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right, it’s a lot. You have to sell the work, deliver the work, bill for the work, and run all the admin behind the scenes. It was just me for several years. I always thought sales got a really bad name in our world because we all pride ourselves on being a practitioner and I know my knowledge is my currency. Yes, but no entrepreneur can exist being great at their craft, but not great at sales and business development. It’s the Yin and Yang of the world – you have to sell the work and you have to deliver the work.

As we’ve talked about in previous minisodes, the question is really knowing where your gifts lie and asking the questions: What can I outsource? What are my towering strengths? What do I uniquely need to do to help my company thrive?

Originally, my answer for that was that maybe I should become the marketer and head of sales, and then have other consultants provide the delivery. Ultimately, that fork in the road was one that I took because I wasn’t scared of sales, I actually really liked it, but I didn’t define it in the way that I think scares a lot of people who have this integrity about being a practitioner.

DOUG FORESTA: I don’t want to do sales because I’m too pure. (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. It’s beneath me. No, sales makes the world go round. Really great consultative sales starts to build the relationship between you and whomever you’re trying to help. People love being asked questions about their world. They love being interviewed and they get hopeful and excited about how you can help them. If you do the sales process right, you are not only collecting the information you need to help them create something new, but you are simultaneously reassuring them about your knowledge as you lead them through the process.

It’s about that first impression, and we need to show up strongly as any consultant for diversity and inclusion, or even organizational change in general. As we go through these questions, you’ll hear these are actually applicable for any discipline. I happen to know exactly what I want to get out of a first conversation when someone has approached me. At JBC, we tend to react to a lot of leads now, to the point where we aren’t cold calling. Thankfully, that’s not what we have to do.

That first call is when someone is evaluating you. I would tell all of our listeners who are internal to organizations, you have internal clients and you’re always doing sales.

DOUG FORESTA: If you’re listening to this and you say, “This doesn’t apply to me because I don’t do sales, I work internally.” Guess what? You need to think again.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. And don’t be afraid of it. I’ve seen some companies not thrive that are helmed by a very talented practitioner who thinks, “I’m horrible at business development, I’m horrible at that.” That’s a limiting belief. Today, we’re going to go through my process and help our listeners think, “I can do that, and I don’t need to be ashamed of it.” Far from it, like I said, it’s the way that you initiate and deepen a relationship quickly and get what you need in order to be of service. Period.

DOUG FORESTA: I think that’s so great. Thank you for saying that. You don’t need to be an external sales person, you don’t even need to be a D&I practitioner to get a lot out of this if you’re someone who’s working with other people in a way that you need to influence and impact people, you’re going to get a lot out of this.

Let’s go through this. As I was saying, you were kind enough to share this with me, so I have the questionnaire in front of me. They’re in a specific order, but the first question you have on here is asking, “What are the objectives, why now, what is the origin of urgency?” Can you say a little bit more about that first question?

JENNIFER BROWN: Sure. I have my master’s degree organizational change and development or I/O psychology. I’m always trying to figure out, “Why this, why now?” Where is the urgency coming from? What has changed recently that has been the impetus for wanting a change? Where is it coming from? Who is it coming from? As a result of what?

Why is my phone ringing when I get a call? Why have they decided to take action, and who has decided to take action? There is always someone with power saying, “We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to react to something.” In the worst case, something bad has happened. We hope that’s not the case.

Often, in business in general, people need to take action around something. It’s important for you to know what that is, because it then informs where you go next. You want to understand the urgency for change, because that tells you what the stakes are for success. What happens if we don’t take this on and if we’re not successful?

You’re trying to mine the situation to ask, “What is the price of not taking any action or not doing this well?” That gives you the stamp of authority, then, to enter and do something. It will make your whole job easier if you understand, “Who is this important to? And where did the ask come from internally?”

As you know, companies are giants. It can come from a lot of places. It could just have become an undeniable thing. We have to start training on something or develop a strategy because we’re losing people of a certain demographic. In the diversity and inclusion world, it can be some of these representation metrics, a legal challenge, a lawsuit, a bad PR situation like Starbucks – a lot of different things.

Why this? Why now? According to whom? What would success look like if we were to take action in a successful way? That is another question down the list a bit.

We start here, Doug. You said there’s an order. This is the most important thing to start with, and from here, we can take the down the path, which we’ll do in a moment.

DOUG FORESTA: It reminds me of Simon Sinek’s Start with Why.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Why this? Why now? Yes.

DOUG FORESTA: Why this? Why now? The next one is about the audience. You ask: Who is the audience to be addressed or included? What are you trying to get at here?

JENNIFER BROWN: This question is about stakeholders. In organizational change, we use “stakeholders” to think about who is driving this, who cares about it, and who are the folks that we need to create a change for – or maybe “to”? Nobody likes change to happen to them.

Who are the constituencies in an organization that are the target group? I always like to ask that. Who is the audience for this effort?

Sometimes, I’ll go back to the inclusion world as we’re building strategies for diversity. There can be several audiences. The answer that comes back for us is that there are often many audiences. There are the middle managers, for example. We say we need to equip this audience with this skill set. We need to roll this out to those people and we need to sell this effort into the senior council that’s leading diversity and inclusion. That’s a very different stakeholder group.

As a consultant, you need to know the players. Who are the players? Who are the people involved, impacted, and asked to change? It’s all about change. Someone is going to change from point A to point B.

DOUG FORESTA: Who are those people? Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: Maybe the CEO wants that change, but part of your value as a practitioner is to help your client think through all the stakeholders.

A lot of times, people bring the problem to me, but they actually haven’t thought about any of the things we’re going to be talking about today. You’re literally teaching them in the very first conversation about how to think about the problem. You’re helping them map it, and you are taking ferocious notes. Who are the key stakeholders? Who are impacted groups? Who needs to change? What level? You should be looking at the top, middle, the bottom. If you have time, you may be asking, “Where are these people?” At this point I always say, “How many people are where in your organization?”

As you know, Doug, we work with a lot of multinationals. At this point, I will say, “Okay, you’ve told me who the stakeholder groups are, but where are they located?” Usually, the answer will be, “Well, we have ten North America offices, we have South America, we have Asia, we have Europe.”

DOUG FORESTA: Oh, my gosh.

JENNIFER BROWN: I’m madly taking notes, trying to understand at the highest level – not detailed yet – how many people are in which place and where leadership sits. You have to know where headquarters and leadership sit, and roughly where the first target group is.

I know it’s very technical, but this is not just true of D&I. Whenever you’re working on a massive change or a small change in a massive org, these are things you need to have a sense of. Then there are time zone implications, and for me I start to think about where I have teams to service this office, this office, this continent, et cetera.

DOUG FORESTA: The next question you ask is really interesting: What gap are you trying to close? Are the goals inspirational, motivational, or educational? As I read this, I was thinking, “I hope it’s not only inspirational.” We talk a lot about good intentions not being enough. Say a little bit more about this. What do you mean when you ask, “What gap are you trying to close?” What are you trying to get at in terms of their goals?

JENNIFER BROWN: Some of our clients come to us and say, “We want gender parity by 2022.” That’s a goal, right? Then they say, “Do you think that’s realistic?” And then I back up and go into the questions we’re talking about today. What’s the background and history? What’s happened before? How has it been received? What’s in place to help you reach this big, hairy, audacious goal – also known as a BHAG, for those of you with MBAs – big, hairy, audacious goal. That is both an aspirational and an inspirational goal. Companies do this. They don’t just set these goals, they announce them publicly. Talk about accountability.

DOUG FORESTA: That is audacious, yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: It is audacious. These days, I don’t think it’s the only way to go about change, but it is very significant. When it comes from the top, the board is in agreement, and the CEO says, “We’re going to meet gender parity,” or some other growth goal of representation of talent of color, for example. Kudos to them. It’s easy to say the goal; it’s hard to do the work, of course.

DOUG FORESTA: Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: With this question, I’m trying to get a sense of the gap they’re trying to close, what would success look like? Are your goals to educate or motivate and inspire? Are they to avoid future litigious actions brought against your company? You have to understand the current state, and what you want that future state to look like.

Doug, sometime in this conversation, we usually sign an NDA – and this is true for internal people, too – and get the documents, get the history. You need to see everything you can get your hands on in terms of what has been communicated previously, anything that’s been tried in the past that hasn’t worked. Perhaps a goal in the past was to educate everybody and raise awareness, which could be unconscious bias training.

Maybe over the last two years they’ve been doing training for everybody. Often, we’ll walk in and something is underway. But what I’m trying to understand is if you’re looking for more help, what has happened in the past? What’s the current state? How are people feeling about it? It’s not just about what’s been done, but it’s about the sentiment index, as well. How are people feeling about it? Are they motivated or demotivated? Is morale high or low? That’s going to speed your way or provide headwinds to overcome.

DOUG FORESTA: And you need to know that up front.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. You really need to know that. You have to know what’s happened in the past. We walked into one client and they tried three times with three different diversity strategies, and we were the fourth. These are the kinds of gigs where you think, “I don’t know if I want to take this on.”

DOUG FORESTA: Right. What happened with the other three?

JENNIFER BROWN: And then I think, “Whose fault was it that three didn’t succeed?” I do not at all automatically throw the other external consulting companies under the bus. They probably tried and did a great job, but the organization wasn’t ready. Readiness is the game. This is what we’ve been talking about, that stakeholder analysis, that sense of urgency. You need to hit your own checklist in terms of feeling like you can be successful.

That’s something that comes over time. It’s as much intuitive as anything else to ask, “Do you want to take this on? Is the risk too high? Does the organization have eyes bigger than their stomach? Are they going for the PR stunt saying that diversity is important, but they are not at all internally set up to make that happen?” Only you know. If you’re an internal employee, you may or may not have a choice. The good thing about being an external consultant is you can walk away. You can say, “The circumstances for success are not here.” Or in your proposal you can say, “Here’s what would need to be in place for us to start working.” We’ve done that saying, “We need buy-in from this, this, and this.”

DOUG FORESTA: That’s a huge key insight. I’m glad you said that, and I want to pull it out a second. The sales process is a two-way street. What’s great about the intake process is, yes, it’s helping you to assess the client’s needs, but it also helps you assess if they’re a good fit for you and if you’re a good fit for them.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. We don’t think about sales in that way. That’s yet another definition for “consultative sales.” It’s a back and forth. It is absolutely a joint decision to jump into something together.

Most of what we take on at JBC is completely unchartered territory. If you think about the risk to both sides of jumping into the river together, what are your tools going to be? How are you going to keep things on track? How are you going to contract with each other and hold each other accountable? You both have deliverables.

We have encountered clients where we had a whole scope of work with all these milestones and dates, and then the client disappears for a month. You’re sitting here saying, “I thought we decided this is where we’re going.” But it takes two to tango, and if you don’t give us what we need, then we can’t do what we agreed to do.

This stuff always happens. I don’t like to think about it as anybody’s fault, but the ownership is shared in a lot of what we deliver. We jump in together, truly.

This is a distinction between us and other companies with more of an “off-the-shelf” product. They might have this conversation, but they certainly aren’t jumping into ambiguity jointly like we do.

DOUG FORESTA: It’s more like, “Here are the five things you need to do.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Yes. “When you buy our product, here’s what happens first, second, third, fourth, fifth.” It’s disconnected the client’s ability to support and partner. Once the commitment is made, the product is rolled out.

It’s never uncomplicated, even if you are a straightforward company selling one thing and one thing only. For us, it’s the opposite, which can be crazy-making. It’s risky.

My favorite book, which I always tell people to read is Flawless Consulting by Peter Block. I read it in my master’s program, and it just blew my mind. The subtitle of the book is: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Utilized. I had never realized that my product is my expertise. Your ability to help somebody think through their landscape and figure out how you can help them shift what they need to shift, and what your role is because you’re not going to touch everything that they’re responsible for. You’re going to insert yourself at certain key places where you feel like your expertise dovetails with their goals and where they need the most help.

Evaluating the client, you could be dealing with a team of one that is responsible for 20,000 people. If they choose, they need head, heart, and hands. They need the intellectual partnership, property partnership, the inspirational piece to energize the organization, and then they need a pair of hands to literally write the decks and outgoing communications.

There are some people who really rely on their external partner for a lot of things, and then there are others who only need us in a certain respect. That’s hard to do in that first intake. You have to get to know someone a little, but a good question to ask is: What kind of help do you foresee needing the most from a partner like us? That’s a powerful question for internal people as well. You should ask that all the time. How can I help you most given what you know we do? Where is your own gap in competency, resources, comfort, or language? As a true consultant, you shape around that.

Great consultants are tremendously flexible. You’ve got so much you can assist with – knowledge, a pair of hands, emotional support, or all three at the same time. It’s really cool. That’s what leads every relationship to take a different shape.

DOUG FORESTA: I love the next question that you have: What is the buy-in from the top? I can think of some obvious reasons why you would ask that, but what are you wanting to get at in this question?

JENNIFER BROWN: This is really important. We always say with any initiative, you need to know where it’s being driven from. Ideally, it is driven by the most senior person possible. For us, we look to the CEO to be not only involved because somebody is telling them to be involved, but involved because they really are personally invested.

Look, if somebody is saying, “We’re losing customer business because we’re not doing a good job on this, so we need help.” That’s fine. That’s more of an argument for the competitive advantage, but not a “heart” reason. Ideally, you’re looking for people who are true sponsors of an initiative, and they are very senior.

You’re teaching your client about how to set up an initiative for success. Have you gained the buy-in of senior leadership? Sometimes it goes from the bottom up and you’re seeking that buy-in to create it, and sometimes it’s coming from the top down already, so it’s in place. Obviously, that second scenario is more ideal.

For me, I want to know who is going to continue to hold the flag for the effort when things are hard in month whatever. That senior leader or sponsor is going to be the strong, consistent voice saying, “This remains important no matter what happens in the business, no matter whether we have a hard quarter or go through a merger or acquisition.” Whatever distractions happen in the business, ideally, you’ve got somebody who is going to be tried and true.

Whenever there are questions about resources or priorities, you can go all the way back to the top and that will protect you. It protects you and ensures that your initiative is not a flavor of the month. If you don’t have senior support for anything you’re trying to do, you’ve got to spend some time thinking about how to “socialize.” That’s a business jargon word we use, but I like it because when you “socialize” a program or initiative up the chain, you’re trying to generate buy-in because you’re making a business case to convince. I wish we didn’t have to convince about diversity, but sometimes we do. Why is this important? Why do we need to close this gap? What is the gap? What is the sense of urgency?

Sometimes, if senior leaders aren’t already bought in, they don’t understand these things because the emperor may have no clothes – as we say. That takes on a different hue in the age of Me Too, doesn’t it?

DOUG FORESTA: I hadn’t thought about that, but you’re right. (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: I really don’t want the emperor to have no clothes.

DOUG FORESTA: No!

JENNIFER BROWN: I’m having visions. (Laughter.)

Suffice it to say, leaders are so far from the day-to-day, that particularly with diversity and inclusion, people get disconnected from the need and from the burning issue – that

thing that needs to change. Either they’re not informed by their own teams, or they’re at that 30,000-foot strategic view, and that’s where they spend their time.

Selling-in an effort is a real skill in and of itself. We can go into that in a future episode, Doug. My hope for everyone listening to this is that you have great senior sponsor buy-in that goes all the way to the top. You don’t have the power to make and keep this important. Most of us don’t have that positional power. Sponsorship and managing your stakeholders is critical. Line up your senior supporters – and not just the CEO, by the way. On most initiatives, we always try to make sure there is a committee in place of all senior people representing all business lines and all geographies. We can go back to them as a body and say, “Here’s where we are. Here’s where we’re running into trouble. Here’s where we need you to bushwhack through bureaucracy or get this particular leader on board and have a courageous conversation, because we are coming up against an obstacle that we can’t remove.”

Once you’ve identified your senior stakeholders and gotten that buy-in, you need to keep them informed and enlisted in helping you. They have a role to play. No change effort can happen without all levels. I know it sounds complicated, but I think it’s interesting. It’s how change happens in complex organizations. You can’t just decide one day to do something. We all know this. It’s frustrating because it can take forever the line everybody up, to make sure everybody’s on the same page and brief multiple leadership groups.

However, if you don’t do all of these things, it can blow up in your face, or you can create a change by fiat, but it doesn’t last and is not sustainable. If you’re hit by a bus, it ends.

This activity that we’re talking about right now, Doug, is literally embedding change into the muscle of the organization so that it lasts, it becomes part of the DNA.

DOUG FORESTA: I remember your recent episode with Kay Suarez. She talked about knowing where the levers of change are in an organization. I thought about that as you said this. People act as levers. You have to know where your levers are in an organization.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. And when to pull which one.

DOUG FORESTA: And when to pull which one and how.

JENNIFER BROWN: What merits escalation? What is a little molehill versus a milestone or a big blockage versus a bump in the road? As you lead an effort, learn not to lean too heavily on senior-level supporters. Their time is short; save your fire.

DOUG FORESTA: You have to pick and decide.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, you do.

DOUG FORESTA: This has been great, Jennifer. It’s been really powerful. We are going to do a part two. We haven’t gotten through all of your questions yet, but we’ll continue into part two. Do you have any parting words for people about this process and the importance of getting this information and asking these questions in the sales process?

JENNIFER BROWN: As I said in the opening, “sales” isn’t a bad word. If it helps our listeners, think about the fact that we’re all consultants and we’re all selling. At the very core of it, selling is getting your expertise utilized, as Peter Block talks about in Flawless Consulting.

It is quite a privilege to be trusted by someone to gather this kind of information in order to be helpful to them. Bear that energy in mind if sales brings up a bad connotation for you. Perhaps what we’ve talked through today is a framework that you can carry with you and utilize in multiple ways. I know it will work. People love to share about their own pain points – we all do. We all want help. We all want partnership. And we’re all looking for someone who can help us look at something in a new way or how to expand our understanding of a problem. Really, the core of all business is getting from point A to point B in a sustainable way with little collateral damage. Change can cause damage, but it depends on how it’s managed. These are the kinds of building blocks you need to usher in change, to lead others through change, and manage change. Honestly, this is a core skill set of every professional, and I hope this has been helpful.

DOUG FORESTA: Jennifer Brown, thank you, as always, for sharing your wisdom and experience with us.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Doug.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you.