Five Standout Questions to Help Your Business Grow

Ivan Misner

People refer business to people they like and respect. This is why, when you give others time to tell their story and explain their business, your stock automatically rises in their eyes. Throw in the fact that you’ve got a top-flight product or service—don’t worry, eventually the other guy will wind down and you’ll get to talk about yourself—and you’ll see how it’s a lot easier than many people think to create a solid referral partner.

Question Time

It all begins with your first conversation. If you lead off by asking the right questions—questions that demonstrate a genuine interest in the other person’s business—you cultivate an attitude of trust and rapport from the start. By “right questions,” I do not mean prospecting or “qualifying” questions, the kind you would ask if you were trying to size up the other person’s potential for helping you or to grab some business right off the bat. Those should never be the goal of the first conversation.

Here are five good questions to ask that will make you a standout:

Question #1: “What do you like best about what you do?” If you’ve been out networking before, you already know that “What do you do?” is one of the first questions people ask you. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t leave you much room to maneuver after both you and your fellow networker have answered the question for each other:

"So what do you do?”
“I’m a public relations consultant. How about you?”
“I see. Well, I own a print shop.”
(Awkward 4-second pause that seems to go on forever.)
Look how much better it works if you follow up with our question:
“Oh, a print shop. That’s interesting. What do you like best about the printing business?”

This leads to more interesting conversation about the other person’s business, his likes and dislikes, his experience, and so forth. It makes the conversation flow and lets you relax while you learn about his trade or profession.

What’s more, if he’s like most of us, he will eventually decide he’s talked enough and will ask you the same question—what do you like best about your business? Be ready with a good response:

Well, to be honest with you, I really enjoy helping clients get the word out about their business in ways they might not have thought about. Often when people hear “public relations,” their first thought is of a big Madison Avenue office—and huge retainer fees.

But that’s not how we operate. We help business professionals get more business through print and radio media without it costing them an arm and a leg. I can’t tell you how satisfying that is.

A response like this answers the question, raises some important issues, and explains how you’re different from others in the industry. If the other person is thinking about using a PR firm or knows someone else who might need one, then you’ve gone a long way toward setting the stage for a possible referral.

Question #2: “You mentioned that you were in [industry]. What got you started in that direction?” This question is much like the previous one in that it gives the other person a chance to talk about personal goals and desires and to look favorably on you for asking it. It also gives you insight into how dedicated she is to her profession and how proficient she may be at it. When you learn what her previous experience has been, you begin to see ways that you might refer other people to her for specialized products or services.

Question #3: “Where else do you usually network?” Amy Windham, a colleague of mine in Atlanta, first brought this one to my attention, and it’s an absolute gem. Not only does it help break the ice during that sometimes awkward period just after you’ve introduced yourself, but it also gives you a chance to talk about something you both know a little bit about.

Another reason we like this question is because it gives you the opportunity to make an instant connection. How? It provides the other person valuable information he didn’t previously have, on a topic that’s relevant to him. As we all know, a great step toward creating a solid referral partner is to first make a connection with that person.

Question #4: “What are some of your biggest challenges?” This is a great question that can be used toward the end of the conversation. Of the four questions I’ve talked about, this usually elicits the longest response. Why? Because you’re asking about her reasons, her passion, and her motivation for being in her specific business in the first place. I’ve had people tell us all sorts of things when I’ve asked this question.

Question #5: “How can I help you?” If you’ve asked a new acquaintance some or all of the above questions, the conversation has gone well, and you’ve decided this person is someone you’d like to have in your business network, this is a good question to ask. His answer you get may tell you something that will enable you to help him, and being helpful is the best way to start building a solid relationship. To a networker who is living the principle of Givers Gain, it’s a question that comes naturally, because that networker is one who has adopted the mindset of giving value and service to others without any thought of immediate return. It demonstrates that you have the other person’s interests uppermost in your mind, and it’s an excellent way to build the credibility and trust you’ll want to share with a valuable networking partner.

Remember, everyone has a story. Make it your job to find out what it is.

The Answers You Want

Asking the right questions is about earning trust and gaining rapport with a new contact. It’s about your contact feeling comfortable telling you about her business without competing with you for “airtime.” But most of all, asking the right questions is about developing a relationship with a future referral partner, so she’ll be more than happy to give you any referral that might come her way.

Ivan Misner, founder and chairman of BNI, author of The 29% Solution
Copyright 2010, author retains ownership. All Rights Reserved.

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