Posing Provocative Questions

Posing Provocative Questions

Bono, U2’s lead vocalist, once observed “We thought that we had the answers, it was the questions we had wrong”.  Several years ago, after completing an interview with one of the largest customers of a client, he told me that he enjoyed the discussion, saying “I usually don’t look forward to these sessions, but do them out of respect for our key suppliers.  But you had some provocative questions.”  While making an interview enjoyable is not itself the goal, I’ve found that provocative questions are a key route to insights that yield an “Ah-ha” in terms of the potential for new value-creating actions.  Rephrasing Bono’s quote, if you want to get valuable answers, get the questions right.

Over the years, I’ve worked on compiling a roster of provocative questions, ones that are somewhat unexpected and that allow a discussion to evolve in interesting directions.  One example of such a question is featured in an article in the March 27, 2012 Industrial Distribution, titled I Would Pay 50% More.  Asking what it would take to get a customer to pay 50% more for a product has yielded some creative insights to guide clients’ product development and innovation processes.

Provocative questions don’t always yield a result.  In fact, the success rate is probably no greater than 50%, but getting unexpected, high-value insights from half of the discussions on an important topic is at least the equivalent of making it past the first round of the playoffs.  Here are three provocative questions that have in a number of instances yielded interesting discussions.

“What keeps your firm from growing at double-digit rates?” [Or, if you are speaking to an executive of a Chinese firm, end the question with “…from doubling your current growth rate?”]  I visited Detroit recently, where the automotive industry has been in distress for most of the past decade, only beginning to show renewed signs of life and profitability recently.  That history made me worry a bit about even asking that question of a supplier with whom I was talking, but the response that I got – “Supply chain constraints” – was totally unexpected and opened the door to an important conversation.  In another instance, a number of years ago, the question was first met with a rather long period of silence, after which the executive replied “I think it’s because our product development process takes too long.”  The discussions and actions that followed yielded some major changes, and a success story in that the firm involved actually reached double-digit growth rates last year.

“If your CFO called and said, ‘This is a one-time thing, but you need to spend $1 million in the next three months.’  How would you spend it?” [Or substitute some other spending target more appropriate to the firm and business unit with whom you are speaking.]  While the most frequent response that I’ve gotten to this question is of the form “I don’t have to worry about that, he’d never call with that request”, other responses have triggered important insights for suppliers.  Many responses have been critical in defining the most significant unmet needs of the organization providing the answer, sometimes leading to ideas as to how those needs can be met without having the CFO call asking for help in ramping up spending.  Other responses have provided a preview of future spending that was clearly in the plans, if not the budgets, of the organization giving the response.

“If your CEO walked into your office and said, ‘Did you see the news?  Having THAT firm buy into our industry is really going to change things.’  What firm do you think had him so agitated?” This question has yielded fascinating discussions, not so much because of the firm that was named as the best guess as to who ‘THAT firm’ was, but in the follow-up discussion about what it was about the firm that made it such a fearsome prospect.  I’ve heard examples of such attributes that span the spectrum, across discussions with firms in various industries.  One firm was cited as worrisome because it had a history of triggering vicious price competition.  Another firm was cited because its healthy balance sheet would allow it to make some investments that could transform the industry.  Another instance involved a firm with strength in ‘e’ channel sales.  For any organization, getting a handle on the game-changers that could occur in the future is important to planning, at least contingency planning.  This question often yields a major lode of insights.

A good program to gain insights from customers must include some basic, blocking-and-tackling themes, and questions in such categories remain the core of most voice of the customer programs.  But posing provocative questions can augment such efforts, often being the ones that yield the “Ah-ha’s” and that motivate actions that create value for both customers and shareholders.

Author: George F. Brown, Jr.

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