Consultants – did you just frame your customers?

Anyone who works closely with a customer needs to know the customer’s needs – and preferably their desires – to ensure that they remain a customer. Yet time and again I have seen examples where professionals simply don’t get the idea that most people react badly to framing questions.

There can be no better example of a “framing question” than when Mrs Merton asked Debbie McGee: “What first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”

Framing and leading questions creep out because the person asking them believes they already know what the customer wants. The result is that the question suggests the answer that you want them to give.

Whenever we deal with a person we don’t know and trust well we find it “cognitively stressful”. In other words, we subconsciously expend a lot of brain power trying to find out if we can trust this person. At the core of this decision as to how trustworthy you are is “Is this person genuinely interested in me?” How you look and your demeanour play a part in this but how you converse will ultimately decide the quality of the information the client gives you. Leading and framing questions undermine the customer’s belief both that you are listening and seeking to understand them.

The science behind this is called Uncertainty Reduction Theory. In a nutshell, people to expect a conversation to follow a set pattern, exemplified by three levels of questioning:

  • Level 1 – Establishing facts: Asking the client questions about the more mechanical aspects of the task at hand is all that is comfortably shared first. The client wants to know how you treat this information before they are comfortable to move on.
  • Level 2 – Values & Meanings: Once an element of trust has been established by sharing facts we can move on to establishing what the project really means to the customer. Customers are more willing to share the areas that cause them discomfort only once they feel that you are trustworthy with the information.
  • Level 3 – Beliefs & Feelings: If you have proven that you are trustworthy, the conversation can move on to the final level – how they truly feel about the project.

To be a good consultant you need to understand if the customer actually believes in what they are doing or lacks faith to some degree. Usually people’s previous experience gives them a gut feeling of the difficulties presented by the task in hand. If they are willing to share these then they can be a powerful tool for you to jointly address the issues before they become problems.

(One word of caution – revealing information directly about someone’s beliefs will cause serious damage to their ability to trust you again!)

So is it ever okay to give the customer a gentle nudge in the right direction by asking leading questions? By now you probably share my view… the answer is a definite NO!

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