ASSESSING CLIENT NEEDS
In times of confusion and uncertainty, organizations often turn to consultants for help in addressing troublesome problems. The consultant’s first task is to understand the exact nature of the client’s concern and then to assist in selecting appropriate strategies.
This article will provide a basic set of initial interview questions for a consultant to ask. These questions have been specifically prepared to ensure that all relevant information is considered before a consultant and client commit to a particular course of action.
Although a great deal has been written on the theory and practice of consulting services, relatively little mentions the first interview with the client. The importance of this first interview lies in the fact that it forms the basis for the continuing relationship. To help ensure a successful first encounter, the questions in this article focus specifically on key areas that build the foundation for the helping relationship.
One major task for a consultant is to help the client to reflect and to clarify concerns. Simply leading the client through the sequence of thought in this first interview may be an important intervention. By the end of the initial interview, the client may have found a solution that he or she is fully empowered to enact without further consulting assistance. On the other hand, this first interview may well be the beginning of a productive long-term consulting relationship.
This article begins by introducing the purpose of the first interview and the stance the consultant needs to establish in building a productive working relationship. Next, each question is examined in detail to expose any underlying nuances. Several suggestions then are made as to how to use these questions most effectively. Finally, a sample work sheet incorporating the questions is provided for consultants to use or adapt.
1. What is the problem that exists?
2. What is the impact of this problem?
3. What factors contribute to perpetuating the problem?
4. What have you tried so far to address the problem? What have been the results?
5. Ideally, what would you like to happen?
6. What interventions might bring about this preferred solution?
7. What forces support this intervention?
8. What forces inhibit this intervention?
9. What are you willing to invest in finding a solution?
10. What do you want from me?
11. Is there anything else that I need to know in order to understand the situation?
12. What are the next steps we need to take?
PURPOSE OF THE INTERVIEW
The first client interview has the following basic purposes:
- To build rapport with client
- To gather information
- To form an agreement for proceeding
Typically, the initial interview is not intended as a complete diagnosis of the client system. Furthermore, the initial interview may not necessarily result in a contract for conducting an intervention. Instead this first interview is designed to help the consultant get a sense of how to approach the overall client system in order to move forward with diagnosis or intervention. Therefore the consultant and the client both need to be clear that the interview is a preliminary stage of the consultant’s involvement with the client system.
THE CONSULTING STANCE
Certain basic elements in the consulting stance can help to build rapport, gather information, and form agreements. These elements are outlined in the section that follows.
1. Be supportive. In order to establish an optimal relationship, clients must feel safe enough to be vulnerable. Vulnerable areas often are areas of potential incompetence or areas in which the client might be criticized for not addressing the problem successfully. Autonomy is a key to maintaining a person’s self-esteem; the very act of calling in a consultant sometimes can threaten that sense of autonomy. Therefore, it is important for the consultant to communicate a general message to the client that it is perfectly acceptable to ask for help and that the client will not be judged, blamed, or criticized for the information he or she is about to share.
2. Be attentive. Although the twelve questions suggested provide a basic progression of thought, consulting should be fundamentally client centered. Therefore the consultant needs to be aware of the client’s progress through the discussion. That may mean following digressions, tolerating apparent irrelevancies, and sharing control of the interview process. The consulting stance is to view everything the client does as data that may or may not be immediately comprehensible.
3. Be definitive. Much of the initial interview consists of the consultant’s “taking in” the client’s reality, and it is essential that the consultant understand how the client sees and experiences the world. Having done that, the consultant must establish his or her own identity and role in the process. A healthy consulting relationship requires an explicit and concrete understanding of the client’s and the consultant’s mutual expectations. Although each of these principles is important, their relative emphasis may shift at different phases of this initial interview. For example, it is generally important to avoid being too definitive until the later stages of the discussion; however, showing support may be important throughout the interview, especially with an edgy client.
OVERVIEW OF THE QUESTIONS
Each of the twelve questions is quite simple. Understanding the rationale for each question will enable the consultant to concentrate on its intent rather than simply to complete a rote sequence of information gathering. Understanding the objective of each question is also important in being able to generate appropriate follow-up questions and probes.
1. What is the problem? This is the obvious starting place, inasmuch as clients call consultants to help solve problems or address issues. This question opens the door to understanding the source of the discomfort, pain, or unfulfilled potential with which the client wants assistance.
Sometimes the answer a client initially gives takes the form of a solution, as if the interviewer’s question had been “What do you want to do about the problem?” For example, one client was asked what the problem was and replied, “We need a team-building session.” A natural follow-up question could be to ask what had been happening that led to that conclusion. It is important that the consultant have a clear picture of the current situation that the client wants changed and not simply the mechanism the client has established for making that change.
A client may be reluctant to discuss the problem for a variety of reasons. It is helpful to remember that maintaining control is a critical need for many people, especially managers. For some people, to admit to problems that they cannot solve is an admission of being out of control. Therefore getting the client to focus directly and openly on describing the presenting problem may be a delicate task requiring tact and interviewing skill.
2. What is the impact of this problem? After exploring the client’s perception of the problem, the consultant examines the dimensions of the problem:
- Where is the problem occurring or not occurring?
- To whom is the situation a problem?
- When does the problem occur or not occur?
- When the problem occurs, what is the result?
The nature of problems is that they cause pain; inasmuch as most people prefer to avoid pain, they often choose to avoid looking closely at problems. This question (along with follow-up probes) is intended to support the client in taking a closer examination of the problem—perhaps in new ways.
3. What factors contribute to perpetuating the problem? Once the consultant understands the basic dimensions of the problem, it is important to know the client’s perception of why the problem is occurring. Despite asking the client to assess the forces contributing to the situation, the consultant must be aware that the client may well bring his or her own sources of distortion to this assessment. The consultant must remind the client that this is a preliminary interview and that in most instances there will be additional data gathering prior to the consultant’s drawing any conclusions. In this way, the consultant also opens the client to the possibility of forces other than those that have been previously identified.
This may also be a time for the consultant to offer other possible interpretations, not as conclusions but simply to test ideas and help the client expand the range of possibilities. Note that the phrasing of this question assumes that problems are multi-determined. Although this premise sometimes may be argued, the consulting stance here is one of open inquiry into possible explanations or interpretations without prematurely closing on a single explanation.
4. What have you tried so far to address the problem? What have been the results? In general, people like to believe that they can solve their own problems. This is especially true of managers, who are paid to resolve management issues. To preserve the self-esteem of the client (a key process goal of the interview), it is essential to acknowledge the client’s efforts to address the problem and his or her perceptions about the results. These may be important data for what might not work in the future and for factors that must be considered for a successful intervention.
5. Ideally, what would you like to happen? After exploring the current situation, the client may well be ready to focus on the future. This is the time to assess and potentially to tap into the client’s energy and enthusiasm for having things change. Although this may well not be the final goal statement, posing the question invites the client to a more empowered position.
In exploring this area, the client should be asked to describe the preferred situation as specifically as possible, using questions such as the following:
- If the situation were how you want it to be, what specifically would people be doing?
- How exactly would people be feeling?
- What would be happening in the environment?
- What would customers be saying, doing or thinking?
- What specifically would the product or service be like?
When the client is finding it difficult to commit to a particular vision for the future, another question might be “What might it be like if the situation were more the way you want it?” This can free up the client to discuss possibilities that he or she is not yet ready to support. If the client seems reluctant or de-energized by the question, other factors may not be clear to the consultant. It may simply mean that the client is not ready to move forward, in which case the consultant can simply acknowledge that in a non-judgmental manner and allow the client to indicate the next move.
6. What interventions might bring about this preferred solution? This brainstorming question is intended to elicit a range of possibilities. An underlying premise in much of a consultant is “equi-finality”—in other words, there are various ways of doing things. More precisely, equi-finality means that equally valuable results can be achieved through a variety of means. Therefore if the client provides only one option, a good follow-up question might be “What other options might be helpful?”
After generating options for bringing about the preferred situation, it may also be helpful to ask what criteria need to be met by whatever option is selected. For example, criteria might concern costs, timeliness, who is involved, how much data gathering is required, and so on. Once these criteria are known, the various options can be tested against the criteria and a tentative decision can be made.
The consultant should also contribute expertise in terms of options and their likely consequences. If the client is overlooking an important option or is leaning toward an option that the consultant’s experience has shown not to work, this is the time to speak. After all, the process consultant is being hired for his or her process expertise.
7. What forces support this intervention?
8. What forces inhibit this intervention? After a direction has been determined, it is important to detect any hidden mine fields and to identify additional support that could be enlisted to help ensure success. Examples of forces (either supporting or opposing) include the following:
- The motivation levels of the employees involved;
- The presence (or absence) of key allies within and outside the client system;
- The adequacy of resources, including money and time;
- The level of support for such activities within the organizational culture; and
- The timing of the activities and how they fit with other events or stages within the larger organizational context.
Once these forces have been identified, the client should be asked to reassess how reasonable the selected approach will be. Assuming it is still a “Go,” these forces should be incorporated into any plans.
9. What are you willing to invest in finding a solution? By this point in the discussion, the client and the consultant will be much clearer about the nature of the situation, the potential benefits of addressing it, and the likelihood of success or failure. It is now time to address costs and risks.
For most interventions, the primary costs focus on money and time. Risks may include potential loss of the client’s credibility in the organization, the situation worsening, or the emotional pain of going through the intervention.
In asking the client to assess these costs and risks, it may also be necessary for the consultant to help reality-test the situation. For example, the client may wish to know whether a team-building approach is likely to succeed. This can be addressed by discussing the consultant’s overall experience with the success of team-building approaches. However it is done, the client needs to be clear about the costs and risks and make choices as to whether or not to proceed.
10. What do you want from me (the consultant)? Assuming that the intervention is still a “go,” the consultant can move toward exploring his or her role in the effort. Although in some cases the client will be ready to move toward formal contracting, other cases will need additional data gathering or a time lapse before a contract can be developed. In either case, the consultant’s role in the intervention should be explored. It is especially important to clarify the following points:
What specifically will the consultant do and what conditions does the consultant need to meet (Time frames, checking out products or processes before use, confidentiality, and so on)?
What will the client do and what conditions does the client need to meet
(Introducing the consultant, handling administrative details, making payments, and so on)?
This discussion needs to produce a mutually satisfactory agreement on roles and conditions for the future relationship, in which the following points are covered:
- The consultant’s role is defined in a way that will allow successful performance
- The client’s role is defined in away that will ensure the necessary support and commitment
Before reaching a final agreement, the client and/or consultant may want additional time to gather more data or simply to reconsider this agreement and to renegotiate. This may also be a time to hit the “pause button”; if there is any sense of discomfort or uncertainty about the direction being taken, either party might request or suggest a delay. However, if it seems that both parties are comfortable and committed to moving forward, the time may be ripe for concluding an agreement.
11. Is there anything else that I need to know in order to understand the situation? This is a catch-all question. Experience also shows that human communication is not always a linear process; questions that are addressed early in a discussion might be answered in a different light or with different information later in the interview. This is a last check so that the client may reflect on the total discussion and add whatever additional thoughts he or she might have.
12. What are the next steps we need to take? Before ending, there need to be agreements about how and when further communication or contact will occur. If the results of the meeting need to be documented or contracts prepared, responsibility needs to be assigned.
In addition, this might be a time to recognize that a relationship has begun. Two or more individuals have come to know things about one another that may be quite intimate, perhaps exposing vulnerabilities that normally are not shown. There may be value in acknowledging the level of discussion that has taken place and reassuring the client that their problems and concerns will be handled with care. If appropriate, it may also help to offer whatever level of reassurance can be genuinely provided on hopes for improvement or on the likely success of what the client is attempting to achieve.
USING THE QUESTIONS
These twelve questions are intended as a general framework for discussion and are not meant to be restrictive or a prescriptive formula for success. Clearly there are variations on questions and avenues that either extend the questions posed or go off in other directions. The first rule is to follow the client. However, having so followed the client, the questions may help the consultant to reorient by providing a checklist of areas to have covered prior to finalizing an agreement for further work with the client.
The questions primarily focus on the client’s perspective on the problem and what is needed. This is not to preclude the consultant from providing his or her own expertise and perspective in either suggesting interpretations or providing options for proceeding.
Further, the questions are primarily intended to orient the consultant to areas of inquiry and do not necessarily represent the optimal phrasing or level of detail. For some areas, it may be necessary to employ numerous probes; in others, the simplicity of these questions may suffice. These questions should not preclude the consultant from following additional lines of inquiry based on the information the client is providing, nor from phrasing questions in a manner that is natural to the consultant and the situation.
VERBAL INTERVIEWING TECHNIQUES
In exploring the client’s answers to the questions, the consultant may use a variety of interviewing techniques to draw out, probe, or extend the client’s responses. These techniques, outlined in this article, help to ensure that the client and the consultant have a highly productive discussion around the questions and the answers.
Although the questions are presented in a set sequence, the interview may not flow in such a linear fashion. It may be necessary to jump around or cycle back through questions that were addressed earlier.
Finally, these questions are intended for use during an initial diagnostic interview; however, there may be situations in which the consultant might provide the questions to the client in advance of the interview. This might be particularly helpful under any of the following conditions:
- The presenting problem is particularly complex or requires extensive thought as to its roots
- Time for the initial interview is limited
- The organization’s norms are more consistent with the submission of written questions in advance of meetings
- This particular client prefers to reflect in advance on the questions
Verbal Interviewing Techniques
- General leads: questions that are nonspecific
- Binary questions: yes/no questions
- Follow-up leads: specific questions based on prior responses
- Cue-exploration leads: questions phrased in responses to cues given by the client
- Continuation leads: questions designed to keep the client talking about a particular topic
- Amplification leads: requests for further explanation
- Testing: questions that test out theories that the consultant is forming
- Restatement: repetition of the client’s words
- Paraphrase: restatement of the client’s response in the consultant’s words
- Reflection: mirroring back to the client of the feelings that the consultant believes the client is experiencing
- Summarization: recapitulation of the data gathered thus far
- Sharing: descriptions of situations that the consultant has experienced that are similar to those being described by the client
- Consoling: sharing feelings of concern for the client
- Expressing caring: demonstrating that the client and the consultant are building a relationship
This set of twelve questions is a general framework for dialogue. Used skillfully, the questions allow the consultant to draw on all of his or her powers of observation and skills so as to establish rapport and ensure a productive and valuable client-consultant relationship.
Initial Diagnostic Interview Work Sheet
What is the problem or the reason that you called me in?
What is the impact of this problem?
For whom is it a problem?
Where is the problem occurring or not occurring?
How big is the problem?
What would be the consequences of not addressing the problem?
What factors contribute to perpetuating the problem?
What are people doing or not doing that is creating or sustaining the problem?
How might such things as organizational reward systems, structures, rules, policies, relationships, and so on contribute?
What have you tried so far to address the problem?
What have been the results?
What has worked?
What has not worked?
What would you like to happen?
What would it be like if the situation were the way you want it to be?
What interventions might bring about this preferred solution?
Which do you see as most likely to succeed?
What forces support this intervention?
(Key people, resources, time, outside events, and so on.)
What forces inhibit this intervention?
(Key people, resources, time, outside events, and so on.)
What are you willing to invest in finding a solution?
Your time? The time of others? Money? Risk? Involvement? Commitment? Resources?)
What do you want from me?
Support? Active involvement? Resources? Type(s) of consulting services? Nature of the relationship?
Is there anything else I need to know in order to understand the situation?
What are the next steps we need to take?
Who? What? When? How? Where?