One of the most important aspects of doing consulting work is identifying the needs of the client. This is not always easy! Some consulting clients do not fully realize the full scope of their needs at first, or they might need different things than they think they need. The role of the consultant is to ask the right questions to help “go deeper” into the client’s challenges and draw out the fullest, truest picture of the situation. In this way, being a consultant is a little like being a therapist or detective; you can’t always assume that the first answer you hear is correct. Sometimes there are bigger issues lurking below the surface.
Here are a few key questions that every consultant should ask when interviewing a new client:
1. What are your five biggest challenges?
Ask about the client’s overall challenges—beyond the immediate subject at hand. By getting a sense of the larger challenges facing your client, you can be prepared to offer insights and draw connections that the client might have missed.
2. What are your five biggest opportunities?
Find out what the client is truly excited about! Where are some interesting new growth areas for the client’s business? What are some new trends shaping the marketplace? What are some of the most compelling new developments that the client has in store?
3. What keeps you up at night?
Connect with the client’s challenges on a visceral level. What is it that keeps this client from getting a good night’s sleep? What are the “worst-case scenarios” that this client might be confronting? If you phrase the question in these stark terms, you might help prompt the client to answer with greater candor and specificity, allowing you to help your client focus in on the biggest problem areas.
4. Why did you decide to hire a consultant?
Clients hire consultants for different reasons. Sometimes they need help with a specific problem or in implementing a known solution; other times they need a fresh perspective to bring new ideas and divergent thinking. Some clients turn to consultants when they don’t have the right expertise in house or just need more “hands on deck,” while other clients hire consultants to complement their existing team.
And in the less-ideal scenarios (from a consultant’s perspective), sometimes consultants get brought in when a project has a troubled history or has become a political hot potato within the client’s organization. For example, if a project has a history of failing to meet deadlines or has become “untouchable” within the organization, a consultant might be brought in to salvage it. If you can get a sense of why your client wanted to bring in a consultant, you’ll have a better understanding of the internal dynamics of the client’s organization, as well as a better perspective on the client’s true needs.
5. Where is your business headed in the next year and the next five years?
It’s important to get a sense of the “big picture.” You need to find out more about your client’s overall situation. Is he or she optimistic? Pessimistic? Cautiously hopeful or quietly desperate? Get a sense for your client’s overall strategic plan and see how your project fits into that plan—and be prepared to offer new ideas to aid the client’s larger strategic goals, as well as implementing the project at hand.
Knowing how to ask the right questions is a big part of any consultant’s success. You’re not just there to do a job; you’re there to collaborate, build a relationship, and sometimes coax out the hidden needs and unspoken motivations of your clients and their organizations.