When we get to know new clients, we ask a lot of questions. We’re curious by nature, but that’s not the reason.
The reason we ask a lot of questions is that if clients knew what to tell us in the first place — about their needs, about the company’s culture, about their clients — they wouldn’t have to hire us. They’d know exactly how to address the issues we’re regularly brought in to solve.
We ask a lot of questions because that’s how we really learn what your company is about, and what you’re looking to accomplish. And here’s the thing about questions: the most important questions aren’t the initial ones. The most important ones are the follow-ups. That’s when we dig into specifics, and explore stray thoughts that reveal deep insights, and locate ambiguities that need to be brought into focus. That’s where the real work is done. That’s where due diligence takes place.
Here are a few tips on how we conduct intake interviews:
1. Record and transcribe. No matter how good your notes are, they aren’t as good as a transcription. Definitely take notes, but get a transcription and refer back to it.
2. Notes aren’t in chronological order. Notes aren’t simply a list of what was said in the order in which it was said. Notes synthesize the conversation, locating clusters of related information.
3. Think like a cop. If there is more than one decision-maker, ask to interview them all individually, not as a group. If they’re all in the discussion together, there’s a higher chance for group-think and for tacit yet unfounded agreement. If they’re interviewed separately, then gaps appear, and those gaps need to be acknowledged and rectified.
4. Ask questions that may have no answers. You only know if you’ve pushed far enough if you get to the point that you’re asking questions for which there are no answers. This needn’t feel awkward. Just warn the interviewee in advance that that’s part of the job.
5. Surveys are fine — as a start. They can serve as the first round of questions, but be sure to always schedule a follow-up meeting to probe their initial answers. A survey should be the start of a conversation, not a replacement for a conversation.
6. Surveys can be a group project. Instead of having the clients answer them alone, let them read them over in advance, and then work through them in real time.
7. Send a summary for confirmation as soon as possible. Clients are busy. Their memory of the conversation will fade quickly. It’s essential to get a concise, line-item depiction of the top-level takeaways to find out (1) what was missed, (2) what was misconstrued, and (2) what may have occurred to them subsequent to the meeting.
8. Always get permission to record. Even if you’re in a state with a one-party consent law, it’s a quick path to lose someone’s trust if you record them without them knowing — even if you’re doing so in their best interest.
We know that the heads of the companies we work with are busy. We also know we’re not worth hiring if we don’t get to spend time with them. It doesn’t have to be a lot of time, maybe 45 minutes or so. We have no interest in jeopardizing your project by wasting your bosses’ time. We know from decades of experience that if we can get time to ask them key questions, we will vastly increase the likelihood of project success. Likewise, we know if we don’t get to speak with them, we can’t ensure a success.