Many contractors sell their services based on the “answers”, or solutions, they provide. Our CV or Linked-In page can read like a menu of “solutions” to client-problems, an impressive list of stunning achievements.

There are several issues with this. Firstly, as soon as you show up with a solution, the client hears the “sales-pitch” If you are that good, how come you are available tomorrow? Secondly, they start thinking of why they perhaps don’t need your solution, but a different one. And thirdly, they will often just change the question e.g. focus on a different priority, leaving your solution / answer with a loss of “punch”.

If a prospective client is not captivated by the questions you are asking, how can they be confident about any answers you claim to provide?

We all need to engage with decision-makers, often with those all-important decision makers that we don’t yet know, who don’t take emails or calls from strangers ... no matter how fabulous the stranger’s solution may be. To make matters more complicated, these people rarely (now) sit in conferences rooms, read articles or go networking. So they are hard to meet in the traditional way.

“Research Led Marketing” (RLM) is one of the most successful of our value-centred approaches for professional life. Basically, this means going out with a question rather than an answer.

When properly executed, RLM is ...

  • more engaging for prospects, as long as it’s professionally done
  • produces “value-in-advance” of any sales conversation, in turn inviting interest, enquiries and leads
  • provides a practical “vehicle” for alliance partners to start working together, and collaborating
  • reaches senior decision-makers that are beyond the reach of promotional means
  • sharpens the value proposition and informs you about how you need to position your services in the future
  • provides unique and useful material for your keep-in-touch system

So what sort of questions are we talking about? Here are some examples to help an IT Professional or interim-manager get started ...

  • You might explain that you are benchmarking the performance of certain key system-processes (e.g. end of day routines)
  • You could explain that you would like to feature a successful implementation in your next publication, and you would like to interview them
  • You might be putting-together a presentation about how project-management is evolving; and wish to get their perspective.
  • You are thinking of focusing your services (and development) exclusively in their sector, but you first want to do your “due-diligence” on the needs and openings that exist there.
  • You have spotted a trend in the last year, you are checking for wider context
  • You are contemplating doing a MBA (or something similar) and you would like to focus your research on the issues of x.

These are just examples; and I have included them here because many people struggle with defining their questions. Sometimes it’s hard for us to define our own questions; it’s easier for others to see what they might be.

Once you have your questions, what do you do next?

Well, obviously you need to schedule some meetings (or telephone calls). This is where your alliance-partners come in; you go to them with your compelling question and you discuss with them the people you need to interview. If your question is compelling (and they have a real network) then they should be able / willing to open the door. And if not, are they really alliance-partners?

One clear caveat here ... No Selling! If this is a research-meeting; it needs to be genuine research. No offers, pitches, or “I could help you with that”s. However, as the meeting ends, it is perfectly reasonable to ask “Is there anything from our discussion today of current relevance to you?”. But beyond that, and permission to stay in touch (usually be sharing later results), that’s as far as you can go.

If our collective experience is anything to go by, the chances are that the success of your first RLM project will consist in determining what the second (really compelling one) should be. All the more reason to get started asap, and not to over-engineer the first one. Its primary purpose is to determine what the real questions are: questions that give professionals a real edge in their marketplace.

Once you get even part-way into a series of conversations around a compelling question, some things start to happen very quickly ... even before you are half-way through:

  1. You get a boost of motivation, which means that making some of these approaches gets a whole lot easier
  2. Finally, you see that some of these alliance partners can actually help you ... or you ditch them. (They have hopefully also played a part in refining your questions.)
  3. Each person you are interviewing starts suggesting some more people to talk to ... perhaps prompted by you.
  4. They also start asking when you will have the results (shows they are keen), and may invite you to present these to their team.
  5. You start to create unique material for your keep-in-touch system. And perhaps even a toolkit.
  6. ... and also for conference-presentations ... if this is your “thing”. At least it’s a valuable talking point over lunch.
  7. And finally, those clients who just see you as a book-keeper now get shown a whole other dimension to your service.

This latter benefit is really significant. Often, the easiest people to reach are the people we already know ... but who have stereo-typed us (i.e. commoditised us) in their heads. They see us as the people who “solve the SAP problems” and it doesn’t cross their minds that we could also help them get their operational strategy or sales-forecasting right.

Confidence, like art, never comes from having all the answers; it comes from being open to all the questions. - Earl Gray Stevens

This advice was provided by John Niland.

Useful Resources

CVs and Sales