- What is your primary mission? Try to find out why they are in business. The why will determine the what. Let me explain. If you called on Apple Computer with the presumption that they were in the computer business, you wouldn’t ask the right questions or get the right answers. Larger companies will have their mission statement posted on their website, in their annual report, perhaps even hanging in their lobby. Pay attention to the words that they use and incorporate those words into your language.
- How do you go to market? Find out how they reach their final end buyer. They may sell through multiple channel partners such as distributors who in turn sell to dealers who in turn sell to the ultimate consumer. Some may have brick and mortar stores and others an online presence and still others a combination.
- What is the most unique characteristic of your company? Try to determine what makes them distinctive. How are they different from their competitors? Which leads to..
- Who are your competitors? Find out how they rank in their product or service category. Are they the market leader, a new player on the field, a follower? Armed with this information, you can find out what their competitors are doing well and where they may be vulnerable.
- What trade shows do you attend? Which trade shows do you exhibit at? What trade publications do you subscribe to? With this information, you can take several business building steps. You can subscribe to their trade publications which will give you a feel for what their industry problems, challenges and trends are looking like and give you more information about the prospect and their competitors. It may also give you the opportunity attend one of their industry trade shows where again, you get a big picture perspective on their industry as well as pick up additional leads for potential clients. And, of course, it allows you to write down the names and dates of the shows that they will be exhibiting at so that you can prepare a proposal for them AFTER you know why and what you should be suggesting.
- What is the biggest business challenge facing you right now? You want to find out where their pain is. Are they losing market share? Facing dwindling consumer loyalty? Growing too fast? Need to find new markets? Has the internet and technology shifts helped them or hurt them? You need to find the pain and be the aspirin. Listen carefully for how they characterize their problems.
- What does success look like? What are your objectives? How will things look when they are accomplished? How do you want people to feel about your organization? What is getting in the way from accomplishing these goals? What resources are needed to reach them?
- What was your greatest (sales, marketing, advertising, human resources, public relations — you choose which one or ones you want to ask about — success? And what was the worst? You want to find out what has worked and what has not worked. If possible, you want to find out if there was a bad promotional product experience. Knowing what the client felt was the greatest will give you an idea of what they look for in a successful promotion. Knowing what they think is the worst might prevent you from walking in with a proposal that has zero chance of being accepted.
When you ask better questions, you get to know where you can be looking for opportunities. You can proactively recommend programs and solutions aimed at their particular problems. When a client sees that you are focused on solving their problems, that you have put some good thinking into their challenges and that you provide solid marketing advice, they see a professional. You will find that even if your proposal is not quite ready for prime time, that they will respect how you think and will open up even more with you about what they are working on and what projects are in the pipeline.
For better answers, ask better questions.