Question Elegance (Issue 528)

In which we are urged to increase the attention we pay to context in the questions we ask.

My wife and I ventured to the Tanglewood Music Festival ( for their Saturday evening performance.  Saturday was a beautiful day in Massachusetts – warm, low humidity, light breeze, only a few puffy clouds. Perfect. So, on our way to Lenox, Massachusetts and Tanglewood, we stopped in a nearby town for a walk around and a lemonade on the porch of the local grande hotel.

We sat in old-style glossy white wicker chairs, ordered our beverages, and sat, quietly, sipping our drinks, watching people pass by and sunbeams change as the afternoon deepened.

After we’d sat for a bit, our server lurched by and asked, “Do you guys want anything else?”

I thought, “He SO missed his opportunity.”

As in something like, “You look so comfortable in your chairs on this beautiful afternoon,  may I bring you a bit more lemonade to keep it going?” – a much more elegant phrasing that suggests that the server was actually watching us and seeking to ensure we enjoyed ourselves rather than seeking only to facilitate drink transactions.

This is a learned skill – positioning ourselves as servers and sales people who are knowledgeable, observant, and thoughtful to increase our perceived value to our clients and increase our connection to them.

“Do you guys want anything else?”  did not increase the connection between Lurch and ourselves.  A phrasing like, “You look so comfortable in your chairs…may I bring you a bit more lemonade to keep it going?”  positions the server as part of us, joining with us to create a wonderful summer porch experience.

Same idea in business to business sales.

Let’s say we’re in a sales call, speaking with the owner or CEO of a business that is subject to increasing environmental regulations of wastewater.  We’ve done a little research about issues in the industry.  We know that regulation will affect their costs as well as their capacity (production volume).

We could ask, “How will the new wastewater regulations affect your business?” Or even, “How will the new wastewater regulations affect your costs and capacity?”

This is like asking, “Do you guys want anything else?”  Not much connection or intimacy there.

Or, we could ask (as in the more elegant “You look so comfortable…?”): “We’re noticing in our conversations with other companies that changing EPA wastewater treatment requirements are driving up their costs as well as reducing their production capacity and revenue growth potential. Very challenging.  I’m wondering what strategies you and your team are thinking about to address this challenge?”

Or, “We noticed on your website that you’ve recently announced first steps to diversify your business as EPA wastewater regulations raise industry costs and reduce capacity.  Terrific! We’re hearing similar thoughts in other firms we talk to.  How did you and your team think this challenge through?”

These phrasings are  more flowing and elegant, for sure, and they:

  • Demonstrate a broader understanding of the challenge (increased regulation) and its effects (higher costs, reduced revenue potential).
  • Position the questioner as more broadly savvy in the industry (“…in our conversations with other companies….”)
  • Take the conversation “upstairs” to a more strategic level by asking, specifically, “…what strategies you and your team are thinking about…?”
  • Incorporate some element of emotional connection (e.g. “very challenging” or “terrific”)
  • (In the second alternative) Demonstrate attention to the specific company’s strategy.

Lurch at the grande hotel received a small tip and two empty chairs for his efforts. Pity. The afternoon was still young, and we were still thirsty.

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