Excerpted with the permission of the authors from Chapter 26 of Power Questions:
“We’re scheduling a training workshop for our sales executives. What would you charge to deliver a two-day training session?” On the phone is Kurt Dawson, the head of global sales for a company that makes industrial equipment.
(Whoa, I’m thinking. Hold your horses. I know I have to pull hard on the reins or this one will go places that don’t make sense for this company or for me).
“Let’s talk,” I tell Dawson. “I can come by next week.”
“Sometimes training isn’t the best place to start,” I add. “In my experience, there are times it’s the very last thing you want to do.” I can tell he doesn’t like my response. He wants sales training. But is that what he needs?
Five days later I am sitting in Kurt Dawson’s office, sipping burnt coffee from a 20-year-old coffee maker. He describes his company, products, and salesforce in glowing terms.
“We’re the market leader. We have the highest quality in the business. Our salespeople are highly desired commodities— our competitors are always trying to steal them.”
It sounds too good to be true.
I start with the First Why. I lean forward in my chair and ask, “Why do you want to do sales training?”
“Well, it’s because we need to continually improve the skills of our salespeople.”
I follow with the Second Why. I ask him, “Why do you need to improve your salespeople’s skills. It sounds like they are the envy of the industry!”
“I believe that if we improve their skills, they will be more effective at new client acquisition.”
I go on to the Third Why. “Why do you need to increase your new client acquisition efforts?”
He looks at me like I am asking why he needs to breathe air to stay alive.
“Our existing client base cannot support the growth targets our CEO has set for us. We need to bring in more new clients.”
(Now we are getting closer).
I give Kurt my Fourth Why. “And why can’t you grow your existing clients fast enough?”
There is an awkward silence. He hems and haws for an eternity. I wait. I say nothing. (Never, ever interrupt a productive silence!).
“Well, it’s the attrition. We are losing 20 percent of our existing clients each year.”
I can almost hear a subwoofer pumping out that low, rumbling, dissonant chord that always accompanies the most frightening scene in every horror movie. It signals that something very bad is about to happen. Glenn Close is about to leap out of the bathtub at Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction.
“Twenty percent.” I repeat the statistic casually, with no judgment in my voice.
Finally, the Fifth Why. “I just have to ask— why are you losing 20 percent of your clients each year?”
“We’re being undercut by several competitors who are lowering their prices just to buy the business. But it’s not sustainable. They cannot support such low prices for very long.”
“And how do you know that?” I decide to press him even further.
“We survey our salespeople. And, I’ve heard this from a few clients as well.”
(Finally, I’ve gone deep enough).
I tell my client that until we develop a better understanding of their attrition, their competition, and their clients’ perspectives on their products and pricing, it makes no sense to put on a training program.
I persuade him to set aside the training program idea for now. Instead, I am engaged to conduct an intensive examination of their operations.
I interview the sales force, as well as some clients they’ve lost. The real problem quickly emerges. Dawson’s company is only rarely getting undercut on price. Instead, there are significant quality and delivery issues with their products.
I confirm my original thinking. I tell my client that if they don’t solve the quality and delivery issues first, the best training in the world will be a waste of time.
Because of the Five Whys I have asked my client, the project we define together is much broader— and has far more impact— than a training program. I help Kurt lead a substantial effort to overhaul his company’s operations, from production through sales. A client to this very day.
When someone says, “I want this,” you have to find out what they really need. You do this by asking “Why?” You can ask this question as many as five times, starting with “Why do you want to do that?” or “Why is this happening?”
Note from Bob: Who knew that the 4 year old who continually asks “Why?” already has “Dig Deeper. Deeper. Still Deeper!” mastered!
Authors of Power Questions: Jerold Panas & Andrew Sobel
Jerold Panas is the world’s leading consultant in philanthropy and the CEO of Jerold Panas, Linzy & Partners, the largest consulting firm in the world for advising nonprofit organizations on fundraising. He can be reached at Jerold Panas
Andrew Sobel is the leading authority on building long-term client and other professional relationships. He can be reached at Andrew Sobel