Staple Yourself to the Process(Issue 542)

In which we are reminded to be curious - ask for the details rather than being satisfied with high level answers. 

As parents of teenagers, we hear the following dialog frequently:

Us:     Hey, welcome home. How was your evening?

Them:    Good.

Us:    What did you do?

Them: Hung out with Bill, Bob, Mary, and Elizabeth.

Us:    How did that go?

Them:    Great.

Because we are both genuinely curious and watchful, what we want to ask is: Where did you go when you left here at 7:00 pm?  Who was with you? Where did you go first?  What did you do there? Who was there?  Who else arrived?  What did you do or talk about? And then where did you go? At what time did you arrive there? Who was with you at that point? What did you do? How long did you stay?  Etc. Etc. Etc.  In other words, how did events flow through the evening?

However, absent a knock on the door from the local police or obvious signs of trouble, there’s not much discussion of details (which we’ve learned we shouldn’t ask about and we’re not likely to get) and nothing to do except smile and head off to bed.

However: Being both genuinely curious and watchful, these are exactly the kinds of questions we should be asking our clients and prospects if we want to draw out the full potential value of our solutions.

When we’re selling products or processes that improve our clients’ operations (from cash management to document processing to any number of industrial products),  the value of our products or services lies largely in the time we can help our clients save, costs or errors we can help reduce, or  losses we can help them avoid. We find this value by asking about their processes – input events, key steps, outputs, enabling technology, manual steps, and down time during which no work is performed.

For example, we ask, “How are you currently making payments?” to find out how our prospective client pays vendors, employees, etc.  Upon hearing the answer, we can “staple ourselves to the process, ” moving through the steps, asking the questions we can’t ask our teenagers, like:

How do your suppliers notify you of a payment obligation?  What does that notification look like (e.g. paper invoice, email, direct debit notice)?

Who receives the notification?

When do they receive it?

What do they do with it? When does they do it?

How long do they need to complete those steps?

How many days pass until they move the notification to the next step?

And then, what happens? Where does it go next?

Who receives it…?


Although this can be tedious, even a few minutes discussion through these questions can reveal the existence and value of wasted time, unwanted errors and rework, losses, or risks that our products and services can address. When it’s time for us to propose a solution, we can say (based on the facts and estimates we’ve gathered through our questioning), we can save you seven days of elapsed time in processing your payments that will save you, in the course of a year, approximately $X.

If any process in our customers’ companies is not helping them become more efficient or more productive, then it’s an obstacle to their success and an opportunity for us to sell the value of our services. If we staple ourselves to the process our solution addresses, we will find the obstacles.

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