The skill that separates a supplier from a knowledge provider

Those of us in professional services require a briefing before we can do our work. But this is often a challenge, as many clients struggle to clearly articulate their needs. I used to walk away from a bad briefing session internally shaking my head and thinking “I guess I’ll just figure this out as I go.”

About five years ago, I came to the realization that I could get a better briefing if I became a more pro-active participant in the process. After all, I work in market research, which means I’m well versed in how to ask the right questions. So why wasn’t I using this skill to my (and my clients’) advantage?

I now see getting a good briefing as a way to hone my investigation skills. If you’ve ever read a mystery novel, you know that the protagonist/detective speaks with many different individuals in the course of solving the mystery. He or she typically gleans a little bit of relevant information from each individual, and slowly puts the pieces of the puzzle together from there.

Asking the right questions at a briefing yields similar results – each answer provides a little more context until the issue, challenge or objective becomes clear. While the questions will vary by profession and by project, here are a few of the areas I ensure that my client covers for me:

How is this research situated in the big picture? – Every company is its own microcosm with goals, objectives, challenges and competitors. The work I do reflects a bigger goal or objective, and the more I understand of that, the more targeted and relevant the results will be.

Who are the stakeholders for this project, and what are their goals? – In research, the person providing the briefing is often in an insights role and is not the end user of the research. Digging into the long and short-term goals and challenges of those who commissioned the project gives me more insight into what will truly provide value.

What’s going on in the marketplace? – It’s never good to work in a vacuum and having an understanding of my client’s market will help to better understand the context of the work.

What would happen if this work did not get done? – this question is incredibly valuable as it tells me the stakes behind the work.

While the questions will vary by profession, the fact remains that it is our responsibility to help our clients communicate their needs. Mastering this skill is the first step in moving from an execution role to a highly valued knowledge provider.

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