Effective Q&A

Thursday, June 4th, 2009 , 0 comments

effective-questions-and-answers-thumbThe presentation has gone well, and when that final slide – “Thank You, Questions?” appears, the pitch team breathe an audible sigh of relief. All the hours of preparation and practice seem to have paid off. But then a lone voice from across the table starts to ask a question. Not just any old question, but the most evil, difficult, probing question. “You talked about your quality systems and complaints procedures, but two years ago in Mexico we had a real problem with your service that wasn’t handled well at all. Why not?” Most of the team hadn’t even heard of the problem in Mexico. Three look at their feet. Two begin to answer, falteringly and defensively, at the same time.

If presenting were a sport, for many of us answering questions (or Questions & Answers – Q&A) would be the equivalent of going twelve rounds with Mike Tyson. The questions come in like punches, and we try our best to fend them off. Each question could land a killer blow, and we’re just happy to give reasonable answers, to stay on our feet. When Q&A is over we relax, and feel happy for having survived it.

When we deliver a presentation, most of us have messages we want to convey but when it comes to answering questions, we become reactive and defensive – taking each question as it comes, and hoping we don’t mess up. And of course every Q&A session we go through reaffirms this way of looking at things – the questions we prepared for don’t get asked, we’re surprised by questions we didn’t expect, and we get nervous trying to give decent answers – feeling like we might get knocked out at any second.

In preparing to answer questions as part of a presentation, presenters should do three things. See questions as a chance to score winning points, bring in outsiders to suggest difficult questions that could be asked, and prepare thoroughly.

Without a clear and compelling sales message, a presentation will most likely be unfocussed and ineffective. Unsurprisingly, as a consequence, answers to questions following the presentation will most likely have no particular direction to aim in, and won’t have much impact. With no clear messages, no target, Q&A quickly becomes defensive, and starts to feel like fending off Tyson. Not ideal.

Effective pitch presentations are structured around a clear value proposition. The value proposition sets out clear reasons for selecting the pitch team’s bid. The pitch stands for something – “our solution is flexible, scalable, and will be delivered fast” – or whatever else might work. The value proposition – or sales positioning – should be built around things that are important to the buyer, where the pitching company has competitive advantage and a believable story to tell. Then, the pitch is mostly about telling that story, proving that competitive advantage really exists. So, in our example, a significant part of our presentation is about proving that our solution will be more flexible, more scalable, and faster to deliver than other proposed solutions.

If our value proposition sets out what we want to say, then questions give us a further opportunity to sell. A question allows us to further prove our value proposition by giving a strong answer. A question about technical partners can be related back to flexibility, and used to show how flexible our solution is. A question about current customers can be related back to scalability, by showing how we have already deployed large solutions for others. Almost any question provides us with an opportunity to link back to a positive sales message – we are proactive in trying to hit-home our messages, and not reactive in trying to defend against looking stupid or weak.

With the right training, Q&A becomes less like facing Tyson in the boxing ring, and more like ‘breaking serve’ on the tennis court. Every question serves up another opportunity to score points. Presenters need to hammer home their key messages. Good answers – like cross-court winners and smashes – score points. Questions give presenters the chance to offer-up winning returns, in areas that the audience care about. A good question and answer session can do wonders for a sale.

Of course, putting this theory into practice isn’t completely simple – it takes work. One problem can be that companies don’t see themselves as others see them – and so it can be hard to know what questions might come up. So the questions companies anticipate aren’t those that get asked. Bringing in an outsider to help prepare can be invaluable – by ensuring that a wider range of possible questions are considered, the risk of surprise is lowered.

Another problem can be that individuals don’t like to report problems to their colleagues if these might make them look bad. Things that a team member feels they don’t need to share – a customer complaint, a quality problem, ongoing litigation in their division – can derail a bid. Without a structured approach to getting these things out into the open – actually asking for a list of issues the prospect may have – an entire bid can become unstuck because a pitch team member gambled that something wouldn’t come up, and then it did.

Imagine that you are on the decision-making panel, and you have accepted a bribe to make the decision in favour of the competition. With outside help, draw up a list of the most awkward, below-the-belt questions that you might ask to deliberately unsettle and undermine your team. Decide who in the pitch team should answer each one, then have that team member spell out which part of the value proposition the answer might support. Every question provides an opportunity to sell. Does this particular difficult question give us a chance to talk about our ability to deliver, or our record of innovation?

By creating a memorable structure for sales messaging, and then linking every answer back to that structure, answers help to sell. Every answer should be a winner – think hitting tennis returns, not being Tyson’s punching-bag.

Proper preparation for Q&A takes time. A long list of possible questions. Forethought and consideration. Answers linked to the value proposition. Actually having a value proposition. Slides to accompany answers, where visual aids will help. Practice delivering the answers out loud. In other words – proper presentation for Q&A takes longer than many pitch teams find the time for. Yet that’s why Q&A often feels like fighting Tyson, when it should feel as if you are Rafael Nadal, hitting winner after winner.

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