Five Questions to Ask in January (Issue 500)

In which we are reminded that January is a good time to step back for a more strategic look at our clients and prospects and, perhaps, to help them articulate their plans more clearly so we can help them more powerfully.

“What are your big plans for next year?”

I was standing near the gleaming granite-topped island in a neighbor’s kitchen, surrounded by smiling neighbors, brownies, teenaged and pre-teen children (attached to either the smiling neighbors or the brownies), bathed in neighborly din and babble and evocative aromas of pot-luck supper dishes.

I must have paused too long because he asked the question again, a little louder, thinking I hadn’t heard him the first time. “WHAT ARE YOUR BIG PLANS FOR NEXT YEAR?”

I had heard him the first time, as it turns out; the pause was the result of my attempt to extract something meaningful to say from the train of thought that glangled through my head after he asked the question the first time:

“Gosh, I have all sorts of plans. Well, they’re not really plans, yet, they’re sort of more like ideas and wishes. A couple of them are probably plans. Naw, not there yet. And I have business ideas and wishes and personal ideas and wishes. It’d be nice to get to a couple of the bucket list items. Well, I have a couple of lists. What’s on those? I’d really like to get out to San Francisco this year. And the Tetons. Gosh, we really need to deal with some of the accounting issues that caught us short this year. Boy, I’d sure like to get back to the Cape this summer to see a couple of baseball games. Clams, I’d really like some clams. And…”

“WHAT ARE YOUR BIG PLANS FOR NEXT YEAR?” he asked for the second time.

So, I responded: “Well, I’ve been thinking about….” and went on while my internal voice hissed, “Are you listening to yourself? It’s nearly the first of the year and you don’t have a plan! What’s up with that? Blah blah blah blah.”

My neighbor had done me a great favor by asking the obvious New Year question. In the midst of holiday reverie, it reminded me I still had some work to do.

We can do the same favor for our clients and prospects by asking them the same general question and listening just as patiently as my neighbor did.

While we could ask dozens of questions covering every part of their strategy, operations, and finance, here are four that start the ball rolling in a constructive direction:

1.         What are you most looking forward to in the coming year?

  • Personally
  • Professionally

2.         What are your most important objectives for the coming year?

  • Market share, customers
  • New products and services
  • Internal infrastructure, control, and efficiency
  • Partnerships

3.         What significant challenges or opportunities do you expect?

  • Industry changes? Competitor changes? Customer changes?
  • Acquisition of significant assets, people, products, clients?

4.         How will you address those challenges and opportunities?

5.   How do you expect the year will go from a financial perspective?

  • Profitability – sales, costs, margins
  • Cash flow
  • Balance sheet
  • Dividends or other payments to shareholders or owners
  • Need for outside funding

Depending on how deep we want to pursue, we can ask framing follow up questions like, “How will that work?” and “What will you need to put in place to make that happen?” and “What time frame do you have in mind for completion?”

Some of our clients and prospects may be completely buttoned up by this point, and many may not be – their plans are still works in progress. Think “holiday party.” Without seeking to sell them anything, we can be curious, listen so they can articulate what they’re thinking. At a later time, perhaps planned, perhaps not, we can return to them, saying: “You know, I’ve been thinking about what you said, and I have a couple of ideas for you…”

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