How to Ask the Right Questions (As an Advisor)

As an advisor, you guide your client through changing circumstances, such as exit planning and value creation. Successful guidance depends on asking your client the right questions to clearly understand their business, how they make money, and what motivates their business decisions.

Before advising on the legal risks involved in an investment decision, lawyers must understand what their clients specifically want to achieve. Similarly, tax advisors need to know how their clients generate profit before advising on tax implications.

Highly effective advisors do not merely focus on their niches (e.g., reducing taxes or mitigating risk). They focus on guiding their clients in achieving their goals (business and personal) by thoroughly understanding their unique businesses and situations.

Asking the right questions lets you, the advisor, help in the best way possible. Which is better: understanding your client fully versus asking surface-level questions?

Related: How to Become an Above-Average Advisor. 

Asking the Right Questions

Gleaning the necessary information to serve your clients’ interests best involves more than requesting specific information. This effort involves in-depth inquiry, good timing, correct phrasing.

Know Your Client’s Objective

You may walk into the meeting knowing why you are here, but you need to understand what your client wants to achieve and what guidance and advice you need.

To reach that in-depth understanding, you must master the skill of asking the right questions. Skillful interrogation elicits the insights required to understand your client’s business model and why your clients do what they do.

To master this skill, avoid asking questions that make your client feel cornered. Be subtle, tactful. Don’t ask, “Why are you doing what you are doing?” Instead, ask for the same information in such a way that the client is comfortable answering: e.g., “What kind of improvement do you want to see in your company?” Open-ended questions force your client to look at things from a different angle.

Get to the heart of what’s essential to your client. For example, you want to know about their target customers to help them better position their products or services.

If you ask the “who’s your ideal customer” question directly, you will likely receive specific answers. Instead, ask an open-ended question: e.g., “What can you tell me about your target customers?” Then dig more profound: “Your target customers usually fall in which age group? They live in which geographical areas? What are they trying to accomplish by using your products or services? What is their preferred media channel?” And allow your client sufficient time to answer.

Questions like these will elicit comprehensive and relevant information, which will make more sense to your clients.

Get the Timing Right

You may be asking the right questions to get a deep understanding of your client’s business and personal needs and wants. However, poor timing misses an opportunity for engagement. Careful timing of your questions will help you derive the intended results.

For instance, ask some questions before you meet your client. Your clients may need time to discuss those questions with their business partners, family, or other stakeholders. You change the conversation and drive deeper engagement by sending a few questions to your clients to ponder before the meeting. You might also give them some questions as homework to think about after the meeting.

These questions may cover:

  • Clarifying their personal financial goals that require contribution(s) from their family and life partner;
  • Developing a shared vision of the future, which demands input from the life partner; or
  • Determining their business goals which need the involvement of partners, stakeholders, etc.

Good timing yields a deeper understanding of the client’s situation and needs. The timing and context of your questions will help you provide better support to your client and deliver meaningful guidance.

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Ask Open-Ended Questions

Some yes-or-no questions cannot be avoided, but branching out from them elicits more information than surface-level questions. This is crucial to get a deeper understanding of your client’s needs and wants.

Close-ended, yes-or-no questions may be easy and quick to answer, but they do not allow respondents to explain themselves. Yes/no, multiple-choice, and scaled responses work well for surveys and questionnaires but do not suffice for the deep, qualitative understanding you need to advise your client.

When trying to understand your client’s business better, ask open-ended questions: e.g., “What do you think your company can do differently?” or “How do you think your company differs from its competitors?” or “What is the goal of your company for this year?” or “How do you plan to achieve the yearly goal of your firm?” Again, allow your client sufficient time to answer.

Research your client’s industry and market conditions, then use this information to question them and get a deeper understanding of their company. For example, “Your competitors are facing X issue. How does that issue affect your business?”

To attain a deeper understanding of your client’s business, listen more and talk less. If you do not receive a comprehensive answer, then rephrase the question and ask again.

Are You Asking the Right Questions?

You will better serve your clients if you, as an advisor, are engaged in their business practices and acquire a genuine understanding of their needs, wants, and objectives (both business and personal).

The discovery process entails asking questions. When you ask the right questions at the right time, you can get to the heart of what is essential to your clients and serve them better.

Author Summary

Matt Lawver

Matt Lawver

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