Early on in my career I worked as a UK business development manager and in the role often found myself on military installations across the UK. My sales training was initially compiled by being thrown in the shark tank and through the reading of several well known books recommended to me, but I adhered and indeed learned just as much from the teachings of one poem written by Rudyard Kipling – “An Elephant’s Child”.
For those of you who are not familiar with this marvellous piece of work the opening ruse says
“I keep 6 honest working men, (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who”
Right from the time we start speaking, questioning has been a part and parcel of our speech. If you listen to your kids or others peoples young children, they never stop asking questions and therefore they learn with a voracious appetite. This is a maxim I treasured within my early career and still use today, I like to ask questions, but admittedly perhaps, I was probably better at it when I was a child.
On the occasion in question, I had arrived at a US military base in southern England. It was a base I had frequented several times, but on this particular visit the armed soldiers stopped me at the gate and asked me to step out of the car.
At the time this was unusual, as they knew who I was and why I was visiting. With a deadpan look on their faces the two US soldiers, immediately started with a rapid interrogation, which although started quite normally, gradually became more strange.
“SIR– What’s the purpose of your visit?”
“SIR– are you carrying anything within your vehicle considered a risk”
“SIR – can you provide me with some identification” Initially I thought nothing of it, maybe they were tightening up on security. But the questions started to get more curious, yet they were delivered in the same loud barking manner, as if they were addressing a drill sergeant, not a visitor. The word SIR was shouted on every question.
“SIR– do you know what the preferred choice of weapon is for our enemy” “No…Who is the enemy?” I responded slightly flustered
“We thought you could tell us that… SIR? “Well no….as you know I’m just a sales guy?”
Guard number 1 paused, “SIR…its important you answer these questions correctly – can you tell me who had a number one hit in February 1985 with “I want to know what love is” ……the ANSWER SIR is crucial in you passing this gate…..I’m not going to hum the tune SIR”
The guardsman barked the question not deviating in his stare. No smile, no expression.
The Second guardsman chipped in
“SIR– do you know what causes the phenomenon “The Northern Lights” “The Northern lights?” I asked confused. “Aurelia Borealis, The Northern Lights, do you know this phenomenon SIR? What is its cause?”
Guard number 1 stated,
“Is this question too hard SIR? OK…. Can you complete this well known saying…. “Peter Piper Picked a Blank……complete the sentence SIR”
At this point and realising that I was having my chain yanked, I burst out laughing.
Finally, the two guards, exploded with laughter and they signed me into the compound, without saying another word.
Still confused I went to the Comms building and met the technical sergeant and told him what happened. He just smiled casually and said in his southern drawl
“Yeah…..I thought you would enjoy that. Son, do you know how many questions you ask?” he grinned “Last time you were here you asked 22 consecutive questions, I counted. So I Instructed the guys on the gate to ask you the same number and I bet they couldn’t do it….it ain’t easy. “
“Son, look, here’s some advice, questions are important, but sometimes you need to ask the right questions to get your answer quicker. I’m a busy man you know”
Lesson learned, but don’t be put off. I knew a lot about my clients, but I hadn’t accounted for the environment I was selling in.
As we get older that innate ability of questioning decreases in us all, we make assumptions, accepting things as they seem and this can kill curiosity. If you are in sales or a business owner, this will inevitably produce poorer results. After all, if we don’t ask or reason with current facts, how can we proceed with a solution?
Fast forward to present day. At our agency Regenic, whether if its designing a website of writing marketing communications we still ask questions…..this is called the brief and although clients may not find it particularly exciting, it enables us to ground ourselves in your business and understand what makes your own clients tick and therefore helps us produce better results. After all no external agency will ever know your business like you do, but the questions we ask bring out the ideas that generate the ROI. Either that or bring your 6-year-old to work, they may know more than you think.