Why you need to start asking more questions

What was the question again?

We’ve all been there before. You’ve delivered a strategy, a solution or proposal and are ready to pat yourself on the back when you find that it hasn’t quite hit the mark.

You’re hit with the age old responses: it’s a good starting point and but, the CEO wants… or the classic that doesn’t really fit with our brand.

More forecasts, more research, more meetings.

Frustrating? Yes. Avoidable? Absolutely.

Over the years I’ve found that one skill in particular has served me well. It’s one that everybody has, but often underestimates how powerful and effective it can be – asking questions.

I ask questions, a lot. More specifically, I have a tendency to ask questions about questions.

OK, that sounds a little crazy, so I’ll back up a bit.

Knowing your customer isn’t enough

Go back to that face-plant moment of realising you have to restart. You might be faced with expending more resources, compromising another deadline, or worse – causing your customer frustration, delays and ultimately costing them money.

That customer could be an existing client, a prospect, or your boss or colleague, none of which you want to disappoint, and all of whom have the insight you need to avoid that risk in the first place.

At Branded3, we talk a lot about the importance of “knowing your audience”. My colleague Adam discussed this in his recent marketing strategy blog post, highlighting the risks of making assumptions and just how important customer insight is to supporting and informing an effective strategy.

There is a lot to be said for insight and positive relationships when it comes to being aligned with your audience and their needs, but having this doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you are on the right track.

With a big team of experts and an arsenal of experience and tools, how you do make sure you’re deploying the right thing at the right time?

Knowing the client’s business, culture and behaviour is one aspect, but their experience in SEO, PPC, PR and with other agencies can also be a big factor. Not to mention business and site restrictions, industry regulation, historical penalties, procurement cycles… I could go on!

A brief problem

We know how effective a solid strategy is when it comes to delivering results. Whether it’s content, technical SEO or PR, it all starts with the brief.

But briefs can be misunderstood or misdirected as every individual has their own focus, agenda and interpretation.

But time is money, so more often than not we press on in a mission to get from A to B without making sure that A is the right starting point, and B is actually where we need to go.

So how do we make sure we are heading in the right direction? How do we know our interpretation of the brief is the right one? How can we be confident the strategy we design is going to move our customer closer to their business objectives?

When you have the right answer, how do you respond in a way which doesn’t patronise your href lang-speaking clients or completely baffle the not-so-tech-fluent ones?

Like Search in general, it all starts with understanding your landscape.

simon sinek start with why ted talk

My favourite author and speaker Simon Sinek says “Start with Why” and explains in his brilliant TED talk his principle of the “golden circle” and how many brands and business do their marketing backwards. They start with their “what” and then move straight onto “how” they do it, which is the opposite of how our brains are wired to respond.

His theory really resonated with me, and explained some of the logic and science behind the approach I’ve found to be so effective when it comes to really understanding what is important to our clients, and making sure that our response is going to hit the mark.

Answer the right question

If we really understand the “why” of what is being asked of us, we can be more confident about delivering the right results. We’re then much more likely to satisfy our customers and we can minimise delays and misunderstandings amongst our own teams.

We all know how important onboarding is with clients in ensuring collective understanding and alignment, both at the start of relationships and at regular points in between.

It’s just as important to use this same approach tactically when translating customer needs into SEO activities and roadmaps. This isn’t just crucial for creating confidence in the customer, but also for the SEO strategists, developers, writers and designers responsible for executing those activities effectively.

Here are just a few examples of the kinds of questions I’ve found to be effective to help ensure real understanding:

  • What am I helping you to achieve?
  • How does this task help you achieve that?
  • What journey did you go on to get to this question/requirement?
  • What does this task allow you to do?
  • Have you tried anything before this? If so, what did/didn’t work

Understanding what has been done in the past, as well as what needs to be done in the future, is extremely valuable. It’s not just to avoid duplication – it’s about highlighting unresolved issues and barriers or even quick win opportunities.

Technical audits are often a good example of this, where repeat recommendations are made because they are still valid and often increasingly important as the search and competitor landscape continually changes.

These kinds of activities can also be one of the hardest to pull across the line, as they have often been done before. This means the business case to justify investment and progression has to be solid or it will cause frustration for all involved.

The execution of any idea or strategy can range in time, expense and risk, so getting it right first time is essential.

All of our customers’ industries are different and constantly changing, and because we don’t do “one size fits all”, it’s even more important we are fully immersed in their vision when creating briefs and developing strategies.

Why is it worth it?

Thinking and working in this way can be applied to a whole range of activities that influence the kind of relationship we build with customers and the long term results we can achieve – from how we onboard new clients and the way we design our governance, right through to the objectives that underpin our SEO roadmaps

It works in reverse too. It’s important that our customers understand the rationale behind our approach and questions. That’s why most of our strategic reviews and monthly updates start with an update on how the landscape has changed and what that means for them.

We know how powerful relevancy is in Search, and this isn’t just applicable to on site content and keywords. By demonstrating knowledge, insight and synergy with our customer’s vision we can help our stakeholders to move SEO activities higher up the priority list and make it easier for them to influence change and investment.

Good performance makes for happy customers. Targeted and relevant performance make for happy, long term partnerships.

In order to be relevant, you need to know what you’re being relevant to.

That starts with asking questions.

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