The right questions are more important than the right answers

When it comes to customer insight, all to often marketers go in knowing what they want the answer to be, but becoming a better questioner is a skill that can be learnt.

salary survey questionsWhat if the role of a marketer is about not having the right answers, but asking the right questions?

Much of what a marketer does is ask questions: we probe others or we probe information. But when is the last time you stopped to think about how you ask questions?

I was reminded of this while trying to work through a particularly difficult strategy discussion with a colleague. My first instinct throughout was to keep suggesting solutions, supported by what I thought was relevant data and insight.

The problem was that we were immediately jumping into ‘solution mode’ and simply reinforcing ideas that are already there, or worse, asking questions to which everybody knows the answer they want to hear. No new ideas, mindsets, or insights could possibly have been developed, and we all came away from the meeting irritated and frustrated.

What was at the root of our problem? We did not ask enough of the right questions.

Questioning is a skill you can develop

For some people, questioning comes easily. Good marketers are good communicators and are basically nosy and inquisitive. But most of us don’t ask enough questions or the right questions, nor do we understand that asking questions can be far more valuable than providing answers.

Few of us think of questioning as a skill that can be developed. Barristers, journalists, and doctors are taught how to ask questions as part of their training. But not us marketers.

Sure, we might know to avoid closed-ended questions that can be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’, as these are of no value when it comes to developing new ideas and insights. But, as marketers, we tend to believe we are in the solution business: our first instinct is always to suggest a solution.

Giving solutions may be the most efficient way to get things done, but it can often result in a short-term gain.

How to become a better questioner

The first step in becoming a better questioner is to ask more questions. The good news is that by asking questions, we naturally improve our emotional intelligence according to behavioural science research. This, in turn, makes us better questioners – a virtuous cycle.

You must develop a passion for asking questions and be genuinely interested in other people and what makes them tick. If not, all you will be doing is preparing the answer in your head while they speak, instead of listening.

Worse, you will be looking for evidence that confirms what you want to believe rather than putting yourself in the other person’s position.

Of course, the sheer number of questions is not the only factor in becoming a better questioner. Knowing how to ask the right questions is equally important. A ‘perfect’ question can make all the difference.

What are the right questions to ask?

How do we go about asking the right question? Indeed, is there a ‘perfect’ question? Author Warren Berger calls them ‘beautiful questions’ and defines them as “actionable questions that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something that can serve as a catalyst for change”.

What do these look like? Let’s call them ‘empowering’ questions as they encourage development as a thinker and problem solver. Berger uses the following examples:

‘Why’ questions are ideal for coming to grips with an existing problem, helping us think analytically and critically why the problem exists. ‘Why did this campaign work?’ could give much fresher insight than, ‘Let’s look at the data and see what it says’. James Dyson purportedly said, ‘Why do vacuum cleaners have to have bags?’ and created a whole new category and price point.

‘What if’ questions can be used to explore new ideas for possible improvements and seeing if we can tackle the challenge another way. It also challenges assumptions.

‘How’ questions come when it’s time to act on ideas. Questions that start ‘How might we…?’ have the potential outcome of transforming possibility into reality.

The future of insight is about asking better questions

Author, entrepreneur and futurist Peter Diamandis says in the future it will not be about “what you know” but “the quality of the questions you ask” that will be most important.

It’s not about simplistic statements like ‘being data-driven’ or ‘creating insight’. The real skill for marketers to develop is using questions as a powerful tool to unlock the right evidence, to lead by asking rather than telling, and setting aside judgement.

You don’t have to have the answer to ask a great question, instead a question should be the starting point to open your mind to what is really happening. In other words, true insight based on evidence.