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Improving Your Consulting Skills

The following articles address issues I present in my books and newsletters. For additional information, contact me by

Are You an Order Taker?

Every spring, I hire someone to do a yard clean-up. We don't much care who does it, as long as we don't have to do it ourselves. Since I can never remember who did the work last year, I hire someone new each year. Whoever does it is usually does a good job (as defined by "they did it, not us.")

However, I'm always surprised by how little these guys do to make the job into something bigger. When I explain what I'd like done, they rarely point out other work they could do for us. After they finish the job each spring, I expect them to ask if I'd like them to do the mowing for the summer. But they rarely do. I wait for them to offer to do following spring's clean-up. But they never do. And when the following spring rolls around, they never call and say, "We did your spring clean-up last year. Would you like us to do it again this year?"

These spring clean-up people are order takers. Order takers are people who respond to a customer's request exactly as stated, but do nothing more. They accept what they're asked to do, and they do it. That may not be a problem with spring clean-ups, but it can be critical in a business setting because customers' requests often don't reflect what the customers really need or could benefit by having. If your products or services are complex, expensive, or easily misunderstood, order taking can result in highly dissatisfied customers.

A manager's eye view of order takers

According to many of the managers who have requested my consulting skills workshop, order taking among their employees is rampant and worrisome. Given that customers don't always communicate their needs fully and accurately, these managers fear that their employees may unquestioningly accept flawed specifications, and provide what may prove to be ill-suited solutions.

When I ask these managers to be specific about what they want their employees to improve, their list includes such things as asking questions, interpreting responses, expanding their perspective of the problem, managing expectations, following up with customers, anticipating future needs, and staying in closer contact with their customers. In short, they want their employees to move from the role of order-taker to that of skilled service provider.

Why order-taking is so prevalent: Part 1

I've seen two key reasons for the prevalence of order-taking. The first reason is that many professionals began their careers in order-taking positions. They were given assignments that they were expected to carry out without asserting their own creativity or critical thinking. Their job was to do as directed, and that's what they did. In the process, order-taking became their mindset and as they advanced professionally, they took this career-stifling mindset with them.

Fortunately, many order takers evolve into skilled service providers as they advance. However, some order-takers don't. For example, they believe that the responsibility for accurately identifying and describing a customer's needs belongs strictly to the customer. And if customers don't do a thorough job of it? "It's not my problem!" one such order-taker stated vehemently in one of my workshops.

Unfortunately, he was wrong, because if his customers dislike the results he produces for them, he's the one they'll expect to rectify the situation. They'll see their dissatisfaction as his problem, and whether justified or not, it will become his problem. Cries of "But that's what you told me to do," will only confirm his status as an order taker. His customers, meanwhile, will see not only him, but his entire organization as incapable of delivering satisfactory service. It is not trivial matter that one or two order takers can tarnish an entire organization's reputation.

Why order-taking is so prevalent: Part 2

The second reason for the prevalence of order-taking is that many order takers don't know how to become skilled service providers. Making that transition requires the development of such skills as creating rapport, gathering information, seeking feedback, assessing perceptions, challenging assumptions, handling complaints and exhibiting empathy.

Do you need to improve your consulting skills? Think about it. In the meantime, if you're in my neighborhood and can take orders, please come by. The lawn sure does need mowing.

Copyright © 2009 Karten Associates, www.nkarten.com

Types of Questions

Customers don't always know what they want. But even if they know what they want, they sometimes don't communicate it clearly. Furthermore, what they say they want may not be the best solution to their problem. Therefore, information gathering is a key consulting skill. This skill entails the ability to draw pertinent information from customers, even if they don't know the information is pertinent or wouldn't otherwise think to tell you.

Skilled consultants use several types of questions, such as those listed below, to draw information from customers. Used in combination, these types of questions can generate more information and better quality information than simply asking "What's your problem????"

  1. Probing questions help you learn more about the problem or situation under discussion. For example:

    • "Can you give me a specific example of what you mean?"
    • "What sorts of things have you already tried to resolve this situation?"

    Probing questions are open-ended, tell-me-more questions that prompt the customer for additional information. In formulating probing questions, focus on those that will help you assess the customer's situation from a variety of perspectives, such as the history of the problem, difficulties with the existing process, the results of other attempts to solve the problem, and criteria for success.

  2. Clarifying questions offer a way to double-check your understanding of what the customer has told you. For example:

    • "Do I understand correctly that what you're saying is ...?"
    • "When you say there are communication problems, what do you mean?"

    These questions signal that you're really listening and provide an opportunity for clarification if you've misunderstood something. They also prompt the customer to add some information even if you haven't misunderstood. Be careful: These questions provide no guarantee that the customer will recognize a misunderstanding on your part, but they do improve the odds.

  3. Process questions help you ensure that the customer is comfortable with the way you're conducting the interview. Just a few such questions may suffice. For example:

    • "Do you have any concerns about what we've discussed so far?"
    • "Would you like some time to mull it over?"

    Process questions tell customers that it's OK to have opinions about the conduct of the interview, and to express those opinions. These questions help to put your customer at ease, and customers who are at ease are more likely to expound at length than those who feel they're undergoing an interrogation.

  4. Empathetic questions (or statements) offer a way to build rapport by focusing attention on the customer. They are a simple and very effective way to exhibit a sense of caring during the interview. For example:

    • "Is this a really frustrating situation for you?"
    • "It sounds like you're constantly juggling priorities."

    Just a little bit of empathy can go a long way in making a human connection. And it's not unusual for customers to respond to expressions of empathy with, "You're right, and as a matter of fact, . . ." thus giving you additional information that you might not have gotten otherwise.

  5. Meta-questions are questions about the questioning process. They are a creative way to help customers remember important information they might not otherwise remember to mention until it's too late. For example:

    • "What question will your staff wish I had asked you?"
    • "If we get started with the information I now have, what question will we later wish I had asked?"

Posing one such question near the end of an information-gathering interview often jogs the customer's memory and reveals a critical piece of information that you didn't know to ask about and the customer hadn't thought to tell you.

When you can smoothly incorporate these types of questions into your information-gathering sessions, you will be pleased with the amount and quality of information that you generate.

Copyright © 2009 Karten Associates, www.nkarten.com

Always Assume Your Assumptions Are Wrong

One of the greatest impediments in successfully addressing customers' needs is assumptions. Both yours and theirs. If you act on false assumptions as though they're true, the outcome could at best be a side trip down the wrong path; at worst, it could be deadly, as was almost the case in a story I came across in the newspaper:

The confusion began at 6:18 P.M. Monday, when the woman's landlord called 911, saying he had found her body in her basement apartment. Two technicians arrived within minutes and pronounced her dead at about 7 P.M. They notified the Medical Examiner's office, which sent an investigator, a doctor, who assumed the woman was dead because the technicians had said so. The investigator had been in the apartment for more than half an hour when he heard what sounded like a single faint breath . . ."
And needless to say, she was alive. So much for assumptions.

Stop it!

The best way to avoid the consequences of false assumptions is simple: Don't make any more assumptions. Ever.

Good advice? Certainly, if you ignore the fact that it's impossible to follow. You can't stop making assumptions. You make them all the time.

Fortunately, even if you can't stop making assumptions, you can become more aware of the fact that you're making them, and the more you realize you're making them, the more you can try to identify them and question them. If you work with customers, try asking yourself two questions at the start of every project:

  1. What assumptions am I making ... about this project ... about my role in it ... about what they (my customers, colleagues, whomever) expect of me ... about their understanding of what I'm doing ... about their perception of my role?

  2. What assumptions might they (my customers, colleagues, whomever) be making ... about this project, about their role in it, about my understanding of what they're doing ... about my perception of their role?

Consider all assumptions

Of course, customers ought to ask themselves these same two questions. Here's a way that you and they together can make assumption-checking part of your problem-solving methodology:

Step 1 is to do a CAF. This stands for Consider All Factors, and is a technique described in Edward de Bono's book de Bono's Thinking Course (ISBN 0-8160-1895-2). The CAF is an attention-stretching activity that helps ensure that you don't overlook essential aspects of a problem you're trying to solve.

An adaptation of this technique that you might want to try is this: Get together with your customers and brainstorm all the different factors that are or could be important to the success of the project. Take about 20 minutes and develop the longest possible list of all the different aspects, components, impacts, pieces and parts of the project that are important to any of you. Most groups identify 15 or 20 items in no time at all. Don't worry about whether your list is complete; no such list is ever complete.

In groups I've worked with on this technique, the lists have included such items as the identification of stakeholders, financial impact, training needs, customer notification, problem history, risks, implementation activities, workload implications, and division of responsibilities. This technique, by itself, may be an eye-opener; it almost always brings to light aspects of the project that might otherwise be overlooked.

Step 2 is to assumption-check the items on your list. For each item, try to identify assumptions you are each making about it. As you work through the list, you'll have the chance to identify your own and each other's false assumptions, and to resolve any critical conflicts in your viewpoints. No matter what's on your list, it provides an excellent focal point for discussing factors that are central to the success of the project.

Assumptions being what they are, you won't unearth every one of them, but each one that comes to light and receives attention is a step in the right direction. In the process, you and your customers will develop a much better shared vision of the entire project. At least I assume you will.

Copyright © 2009 Karten Associates, www.nkarten.com


When I hired a technical expert to give me some pointers, the experience served as an excellent reminder of what it’s like to be on the customer side of the relationship.

We made an appointment for Wednesday at 2 pm in my office. He said he’d be meeting with another customer beforehand, but thought he’d be on time. Promptly at 2 pm, the phone rang. He’s calling to say he’ll be late, I thought.

Wrong. He was calling to cancel. His customer’s problem had taken longer than he had anticipated, he explained. Plus, he added, his real estate agent had called to say his offer on a house had been accepted and he needed to take care of some immediate details. Actually, his precise words were, "I’ll have to crap out on you."

I was really miffed. He seemed unaware of the possibility that his last-minute cancellation might inconvenience me. If he had simply apologized, I would have forgiven and forgotten. After all, anyone has days when things take longer than expected and priorities change suddenly. But no apology was forthcoming.

We rescheduled for Friday at 2 pm. On the dot of 2 pm, the phone rang. Not again! But this time, he was simply calling to say he’d be delayed. More about how long his previous customers had taken. Oh yes, and something about his mortgage and how he had to arrange for an inspection of the house.

He arrived at 3 pm. A nice chap. Serious, low-key, competent. I showed him what I wanted help with. That was all the impetus he needed. From that point until he left, he talked almost nonstop. He explained things I didn’t need to know and didn’t explain things that seemed relevant. Whether I understood his explanations or not seemed irrelevant. He simply talked and talked and talked. And not once did he ask me a single question. Not even, "Do you have any questions?"

Whenever I interrupted his monologue to ask a question, he either dismissed it or filled my 50 megabyte brain with a 200 gigabyte answer. He had expertise to offer — and he was more than willing to offer it — but he was oblivious to all else, including me, his customer.

I knew I could have taken control of the situation, but a part of me was standing outside myself observing the whole thing and thinking, So this is how it feels to be the customer of an unsavvy service provider. I felt empathy for all those customers who, in similar situations, were too intimidated to fend for themselves. Annoying though his behavior was, however, I was chuckling on the inside at acquiring a first-rate case study of a service provider whose expertise at talking with was not as highly evolved as his expertise at talking at.

This fellow’s behavior was a reminder that technical proficiency is not the sole determinant of customer satisfaction. If you serve or support customers, this is not a trivial matter: Your expertise may be irrelevant if your customers are dissatisfied with the way they feel you’ve treated them.

Let us never forget the basics: Treat customers with respect. Be attentive to their needs. Speak to their level of understanding. Listen to their concerns. Apologize when you’ve goofed. Appreciate the value of their time. Encourage — and respond to — their questions. Don’t foist your personal life on them. Oh yes, and make a good first impression. Especially if you might have to crap out on them.

Copyright © 2009 Karten Associates, www.nkarten.com

Karten Associates
Randolph, Mass., USA

Copyright © 2009 Karten Associates. All rights reserved.