Client discovery is one of the key stages of a management consulting engagement. During client discovery, the consultant dives below the client organization’s surface to gather details on the facts that the client has provided, test hypotheses, and probe deep into whatever problems the organization is facing. Traditionally, client discovery involves face-to-face interviews between the consultant and key stakeholders within the organization. The consultant and client work together to identify stakeholders who can provide the most useful information, and the consultant interviews these stakeholders one by one. Given the level of depth that is necessary to sort out many business problems, client discovery usually occupies most of the consultant’s time after he or she enters the firm. While executive insights and other data sources can provide the consultant with valuable data, the client discovery phase gives the consultant human data insights that provide an invaluable level of detail around the business problem at hand which makes sound consulting questions essential.
Every consulting engagement is unique, and so interview questions will vary depending on the client, the client’s circumstances, and the business problem. There are some consulting questions, however, that are always relevant to any engagement. These fifteen questions are key to conducting successful client discovery.
Consulting Questions To Get Started
It is always a good idea to start the interview with some easy questions to establish the rhythm of the interview and set the interviewee at ease before diving into the more difficult questions. Questions around the interviewee’s role, background, and goals, for example, will serve this end. After a few introductory questions, the consultant can begin probing deeper, asking a couple of questions to better understand the organization’s circumstances.
- Why do you think we’re talking today?
Interviewees should have some idea of why they are being questioned; it is important for the organization’s leadership to explain the context for the interview beforehand in order to put the interviewees at ease. Asking the interviewee to explain why will shed some initial light around what the core issues are and what employees think about the situation at hand. Some interviewees may actually have no idea why they are being interviewed because they did not perceive a problem. Others may know exactly why and may think they have the answers, as well.
2. How do you differ from your competitors?
Although the consultant should thoroughly research the client company long before the client discovery phase, asking this question gives the consultant a good indication as to how well employees really understand the organization’s value proposition. If there is confusion or a lack of consensus, the organization may want to consider refining and better communicating its value proposition. This is a core issue, so it is important to gather information around it up front.
Next the consultant will want to understand the organization’s priorities. Understanding priorities will help establish context for the rest of the interview, as the consultant will be able to better understand the interviewees’ underlying motivations.
3. What are your department’s top priorities for this quarter? For this fiscal year?
This question will reveal whether there is confusion or lack of consensus around the organization’s priorities. A lack of consensus is a good indication that communication around those priorities is lacking.
4. What would success look like for you?
Regardless of the issue at hand, the end-goal for any stakeholder is always success. But within an organization, a department, or even a team, there may be misalignment around what success entails. Asking this question gives the consultant a better idea of what success at the end of the engagement would look like, and it also informs him or her as to organizational alignment around success. Any misalignment can create issues around individual, team, and department goals and values, siloing departments and creating confusion.
By asking this question, the consultant can determine whether stakeholders perceive the same problem that leadership does. Some may prefer the status quo or believe change would only make the status quo worse. Understanding stakeholders’ positions as to whether there is a problem and how harmful it is will also give the consultant a good understanding of how easily the organization will adopt changes to the status quo. If everyone is on board in recognizing that there is a problem and what that problem is, there is a much better chance that the organization will be eager to rally and work quickly to solve it, rather than getting bogged down in political and cultural issues.
6. Where did the problem originate?
Depending on where the problem originated, the organization as a whole may be more or less eager to fix it. For example, if a problem arose as a result of losing clients or revenue, fixing the problem will likely be a top priority for everyone. If the initiative to change came from an internal source, organization-wide buy-in may be more difficult to attain.
The next set of consulting questions will help the consultant understand the organization’s progress in solving the problem.
7. How ready is the organization for change?
A problem that arose out of nowhere is more likely to garner enthusiasm to solve it quickly than one that has been plaguing the organization for a long time. At the same time, however, it is important for the consultant to understand the organization’s readiness for change. While one department or team may be excited to jump the gun, others may not be ready.
8. What are the current measures in place to solve the problem?
Often the client won’t have an accurate perspective around how much work it will take to fix a problem. If for example the problem is deep-seated, it will likely require an organization-wide strategic change, which is generally when the consultant is called in. The client may have attempted to solve the problem by implementing training measures, but when strategic changes are needed, these measures will not be sufficient. At the same time, if the client already has measures in place, the consultant may be able to capitalize on those measures instead of starting from square one. Since the client has already adopted these measures, organizational buy-in will also be easier to attain. Follow-up around this topic, of course, would include querying why the measures have failed.
Next the consultant will want to delve into the problem itself. This stage is critical, as it will provide information around the ultimate causes of the problem as well as how it could best be resolved.
9. What are the root causes?
The people who are closest to the problem and have the most detailed insight around it are those who deal with the problem on a daily basis. It is therefore important to ask these stakeholders about the root causes of the problem. Although the client organization’s leadership will frequently have an idea of the root cause, employees will be able to add a level of granular detail that leadership likely has not tapped.
10. What are the top challenges that are acting as barriers to success?
This question is simple and straightforward, but leadership frequently will not have the insight to be able to pinpoint the most significant challenges. Crowdsourcing to determine the top focus areas will help the consultant to understand what the top priorities should be.
11. What actions should we take?
Just as stakeholders close to the problem will have insight into root causes, they will also be able to add valuable suggestions around how a problem can be solved. Consultants should thus be sure to ask employees for ideas around how to take actions to solve the problem. While each stakeholder may only be able to provide a small piece of the puzzle, each piece is critical.
The final set of consulting questions should include catch-all questions that ensure that no valuable details slip through the cracks.
12. Is there anything else I should be asking you?
Although the consultant has had the chance to delve deep into specific interview questions, frequently what the stakeholder really wants to say may not fall directly under any of those specific questions. Giving the interviewees the opportunity to add anything else can uncover nuggets of information that interviewees would not have provided otherwise. Moreover, asking this question allows the consultant to better understand what is the top priority for each interviewee.
13. If you were in charge, what would you do?
We have found that asking this question gathers some truly excellent insight. Although presumably the consultant has done a thorough job in asking all the necessary consulting questions and follow-up questions, this question tends to make people think about the issue in a new light. It also serves to embolden stakeholders in their responses.
14. Who else should I be talking to?
It is always possible that the list of interviewees the consultant and client put together does not include all of the key stakeholders. Be sure to ask interviewees who else might have valuable information on each topic.
15. Who will be making the decisions?
Without effective implementation of the consultant’s recommendations, the success of a consulting engagement is slim. It is important, therefore, that the consultant understands thoroughly which stakeholders will ultimately have the power to make the change.
Throughout the client discovery interview, each consulting question should be followed by the appropriate follow-up questions. These will depend on the initial questions, the organization, and the problem at hand, but generally they should explore the What, When, Where, Why, and How of every question. While every client discovery interview process will be different, including these fifteen consulting questions will ensure that the consultant gets quickly to the heart of the matter, setting the engagement up for success. To learn more about how to measure the effectiveness of your discovery process, read about key consulting metrics.