If You Don’t Want to Hit Bottom, Stop Digging the Hole

Excerpted with the permission of the authors from Chapter Two of Power Questions: 

Even when I think about it today, it still makes me cringe. It was an embarrassing moment of youthful naïveté. I wanted to shine. But I fell flat on my face.

We’re meeting with a major telecommunications company that my consulting firm wants to do business with. I’m a newly promoted partner in the firm. I am eager—oh so eager—to make my mark by acquiring a major new client.

I’m determined to make this meeting a success. I arrive armed to the teeth. Masses of supporting evidence. We will establish ourselves as not just the best choice but the only consultant of choice for this company.

There are three of us and five of them. Several of their group are Vice Presidents with significant responsibilities. Not at the top, but senior enough. They invite us into a spacious conference room.

I bring thick binders for them. Hefty decks of PowerPoint sides.  Plenty of in-depth documentation.

Then, the first question, the initial salvo. It’s a softball pitch. Hard to mess it up.

“Tell us a bit about yourselves.”

I want to leave no doubt in their mind we are uniquely qualified to help them. I tell them about the history of my firm, how it was formed by the merger of two other consulting firms. Having lived through it myself, I thought the story fascinating!

I describe our client base. I walk though some of our most important methodologies. I tell them about our joint-team approach to collaborating with clients. About how well we listen (I am too young to appreciate the irony of that claim).

I cannot bear to spare any of the essential facts. Facts that I know will impress them and make them quick to retain us. On the spot.

I am so focused on our qualifications, however, I pretty much forget the client on the other side of the table. I don’t realize how fast time flies when you’re talking.

After nearly 30 minutes, my colleagues and I finally stop our presentation. There is silence.

One of the Vice Presidents reaches for something in a pile of folders. Is it a copy of their strategic plan they want to share with us? An organization chart to illustrate who else we should speak to at the company?

No. She is grabbing her appointment book. “This has been very helpful, thank you. I really do have to run to another meeting now.”

It’s too late! We built little personal rapport. Actually none. We have achieved virtually no understanding of their goals, their issues, and their challenges. We lost our chance. Now we’re being escorted out.

Fast forward. It’s now a year later. I am on a very similar sales call with a senior partner, DeWitt. He is a veteran of hundreds of such meetings. A wise sage. And we are asked the same question: “Why don’t you start by telling us about your firm?”

DeWitt pauses thoughtfully. He looks up, and asks “What would you like to know about us?” He is silent.

(Often, we ask a question, and when there is even a small silence we ask it again in slightly different words. We can’t resist filling the silence. Not DeWitt—he is very comfortable with silence. He told me once, “Once you’ve made your pitch, or you ask a question, shut up!”).

The client suddenly gets more specific.  “Well, we are of course broadly familiar with what you do. I’d like to understand in particular what your capabilities are in Asia, and also how you work together internally.” This leads to an interactive and engaged conversation.

“I’m curious, can you say more about ‘working together internally’” DeWitt asks. “What prompted you to raise that?” He asks some more thoughtful questions. He shares with them a few examples of recent client assignments. They are interesting stories that highlight how we helped similar clients.

Because of DeWitt’s questions, we learn about a bad experience they had with another consulting firm. That firm had advertised themselves as being global, but the parts did not work together well. We learn about their expansion plans for Asia. We find out why they are seeking outside help.

DeWitt does something else I’ve never forgotten. He praises me to the client. Me, not himself! Instead of talking about his 25 years of experience—about his commanding knowledge of the industry—he talks about how lucky he is to have me on the team. He says I’m one of their brightest young partners. One of their hardest working. Me!

The discussion is different and infinitely richer than the one I had the prior year with the telecommunications company. It is the beginning of a new relationship.

A week later they call DeWitt. They invite us back for more discussions. Then a proposal. DeWitt ends up working with them until he retires, eight years later. They are now my client. A client for life.

After that meeting, I was happy to carry DeWitt’s bag wherever we went.

When someone says, “Tell me about your company”, get them to be more specific. Ask,  “What would you like to know about us?”

Similarly, if someone asks you, “Tell me about yourself?” ask them, “What would you like to know about me?”

Would you like to know more about Power Questions?  Here is a really well done video overview Power Questions by Andrew Sobel:


Jerold Panas & Andrew Sobel


Authors of Power Questions: Jerold Panas & Andrew Sobel – Jerold Panas (1928-2018) was 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. Andrew Sobel is the leading authority on building long-term client and other professional relationships. He can be reached at Andrew Sobel.


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