What went wrong? Anyone in sales has experienced this at least once. The proposal presentation to a prospective client went flawlessly, there were many nods of understanding, and the prospective client said they would make their decision in a couple of days. Then the news arrives later that week: they decided to go with another firm. When asked, the prospect says something akin to “they seemed to get us” or “it was a better fit.”
Working with clients is often more about communication than the work itself, and great communication needs to start before they ever become a client.
Most people, when asked, would say they are pretty good at making conversation. Topics like the ball game, the weather, or the latest vacation stories make it fairly easy to talk to others, and the conversation can wander in many directions. But real, focused conversations that solve problems, reveal hidden truths, and promote change and growth are much different. These important conversations should be orchestrated so the discussion remains focused rather than drifting. Orchestrating a conversation does not mean strongly influencing one’s position or swaying someone to gain agreement. It means having a method to keep the dialogue going to learn as much as possible, to uncover the real issues, and to get to the heart of the matter.
The Focused Conversation Method
The Focused Conversation1 Method, or ORID method, provides four levels of questions to have conversations with a purpose such as making a decision or solving a problem:
- The Objective level: These are questions about what is actually happening, data, and things which are directly observed.
- The Reflective level: These questions are about the reactions to the data, and the emotions or associations with the facts.
- The Interpretive level: These questions reveal what the facts mean to the people in the room. It is the story the data is telling, and it is connecting the dots for meaning.
- The Decisional level: These questions are about what actions to take next.
During a discovery meeting with a client regarding inventory management, a focused conversation could look like this:
- Objective questions: What is the current inventory intake process? How is inventory received in the system? What is the process to release inventory? How does inventory move through your system from start to finish? What does the process do well? What does the current process not do?
- Reflective questions: What parts of the current process are the group satisfied with? What is the group excited about changing in the inventory process? What steps will be easiest to change? What steps will be the most challenging to change?
- Interpretive questions: What changes to the inventory process have been attempted in the past? What prompted those changes? Why does the business want to make more changes to inventory management? How will other departments be impacted by the changes? [This level usually takes the most time!]
- Decisional questions: What kind of priority does this project have? Who will be involved in the project? Is there anyone else who should be involved? What needs to happen before changes to inventory management can start?
This method of conversation prevents off-topic discussion and provides structure to the thinking process. The questions, subsequent answers, and discussion have a logical flow that keeps everyone engaged, participative, and focused long enough to determine what actions need to be taken next.
Having structure like this also allows everyone in the room to be heard, resulting in excellent fact-finding of the real issues. These conversations reveal what really matters to the client so important items do not get missed. Clients feel like they have been able to thoroughly explain what they are experiencing, allowing the accountant to specifically tailor the services to achieve the desired outcome.
Clients will often request services and specifically state want they want you to do for them, but it may not be what they actually need. For example, a marketing and creative services agency received a request for proposal from a prospective client requesting a website redesign. The client scheduled a full day of meetings to hear pitches from the agencies they contacted for proposals. The Managing Director of the marketing agency took the meeting with the client, but told his staff he would not take the website redesign proposal with him. They were very apprehensive about going into the meeting without a proposal, but he explained he wanted to talk to the client and learn more about why they felt they needed website services. Using a focused conversation method, the Managing Director learned—and the client completely agreed—they really needed a marketing strategy and comprehensive marketing plan. The client hired him at the conclusion of that meeting.
There is a lot of upside to having focused conversations, not the least of which is fewer surprises. The firm is not surprised by a rejection, and the client is not surprised by a proposal that will not solve their problem. Proposals created with information from a focused conversation are thorough, customized, and properly priced, which greatly increases the win rate and greatly reduces the number of times the firm will wonder ‘what went wrong?’
1 “The Art of Focused Conversation: 100 Ways to Access Group Wisdom in the Workplace” by R. Brian Stanfield is a must read for anyone leading sales meetings with clients, facilitating meetings, or coaching others.