Consultation is the key to business success

By: Stan Corner

So often in business, the pressure to generate a ‘quick win’ causes us to rush into problem-solving mode, without really understanding the problem. This pressure can come in many areas; whether it’s delivering a customer project or an internal process change, the challenge is that it can take your focus off delivering the best outcome.

Consultation as an approach

The idea that consultation, or a consultative approach, is the right way to ensure business success is not new. However, its role in delivering an outcome, in my opinion, has never been more important. And it’s that importance that, in many cases, sees it either being misunderstood or misused. It’s very different from the authoritarian approach used by many businesses as a way of making key decisions.

Consultation is all about working together to find the best outcome, whether it’s an internal team working on delivering a new process or a sales team working with a customer. To highlight the difference a consultative approach can make, I’ll use a sales scenario as an example.

From a sales perspective, the pressure is on to deliver a result. A good sales team will often pride itself on being customer-centric and focused on understanding customer challenges. The question you need to ask, however, is this: Are your salespeople going to visit your customers with the mindset that they already know what they’re going to sell? Or are they going in there with an open mind and a blank canvas to find the right solution for the customer? For me, the latter approach is true consultation.

Looking at your business internally, your team will often understand their role, i.e. what they do, how they do it, and whom they do it for. In some cases, they may even understand why they do it. The grey area will always be in looking at what value it delivers for the business, either internally or as a direct outcome for your customers. Often the breakdown is that in doing a job, your people lose the consultation aspect in delivering what they do, which in turn can lead to a siloed approach and a lack of creative thinking.

Consultation leads to collaboration

The key here is to take your relationships, both internally and externally, to a deeper level. Taking a consultative and collaborative approach is the way to do this.

Not so long ago, a business would not have dreamt of partnering with a competitor, but the marketplace has changed dramatically over the last few years. There are numerous good examples of traditional competitors collaborating. In what is being termed “complimentaries” or “co-opetition”, competing businesses are partnering to design a better product or service, delivering more for the customer, and achieving stronger outcomes, such as higher profits or increased market share, for both companies. It can also work internally within our own businesses, by getting different teams, that may not usually need to collaborate, working together to solve a challenge.

The benefit of good consultation is that it leads to better collaboration, enabling you to tap into the diverse skills and experience across your organisation, or even your industry, to achieve a better outcome for all stakeholders.

Building a consultative approach

Adopting this approach in the way you do business, both internally and externally, is absolutely essential. More than anything it’s a mindset shift you and your team need to make and it’s something you’ll need to work at.

Change your question style

It starts with taking a different approach. When you have a bunch of people together around a table, whether it’s customers or your team internally, it can be as simple as the type of questioning you employ.

Often the way we frame a question can lead people to feel that there is a predetermined answer, stymieing ideas, and leading to one predictable outcome. It simply doesn’t encourage the kind of open-ended discussion required to find new and innovative solutions.

For example, if you want solutions to an ongoing customer issue, asking “What needs to be done to solve this problem?” will limit thinking to historical solutions, rehashing what has always been done to fix similar problems.  Your team will be looking for the “right” answer, rather than offering the kind of ideas that will lead to the best outcome. Changing the question to “How might we ensure this customer has the best possible experience with us?” is asking the same question at the end of the day but giving your team permission to think outside the box.

The part I love about this is that it really encourages people to participate, contribute ideas, and think differently to find the best outcome. It allows you to steer the conversation, without dictating, in a direction that will lead to a range of alternate suggestions and ultimately, a collaborative solution i.e.  “That’s a great idea but how else might we solve this challenge?”

Listen more

Building a consultative approach requires you to listen, the old adage of ‘you have two ears and one mouth, use them in that order’. To really understand a customer’s challenge, you need to put yourself in their shoes, to really understand why it’s a problem for them. The same rule applies when working with internal teams. Being able to understand and sympathise is crucial to getting this right. It allows you to go back and ask the question “Understanding this, how might we…” Without actively listening you’re limiting your ability to do this.

By changing your questioning and really listening, you’re in a much better position to understand what you’re dealing with. No process is ever linear; once you’ve improved it you should start the process of examining it all over again. Again, whether it’s with a customer or internal, being consultative makes it easier for you to start the process again of looking for the next answer.

This all relates back to the questioning approach above. By asking “How might we…” you might be surprised at what ideas and contribution your team can make when you open up the floor to different suggestions.

Understand risks

The last part of adopting a consultative approach is to understand the risks early: What risks exist to stop you moving forward with a change? For example in a sales scenario, what are the risks that will stop a customer making the change to your product/services? Making people feel comfortable with change is a key outcome of being consultative. It enables people to visualise the change and see the benefits, it keeps people positive rather than negative. It’s not telling them how to do something; it’s working collaboratively to get everyone on board with the required change, and, ultimately, focused on a common goal.

We know that change can be difficult; the fact is that it will be smoother, quicker and happier with this approach. It will add far more value to your business and to your team, which then adds value to your customers.