Why? The Most Important Question

I recently had coffee with a new friend of mine.  Well, not actually coffee.  I hate the stuff – but we met at a coffee-serving establishment and I had my customary Coke Zero.  But, to the point, rather than a fairly standard and sundry introductory meeting, I was captivated by one of her key value points that she brings to her consulting clients.  She figures out the “why” for customers.  Why should customers buy my product?  Why must they?  Or, why would they not?

This question is immensely interesting to me.  I have, for years, been an evangelist of “Start with Why”, of the famous Golden Circle Ted Talk by Simon Sinek.  If you haven’t watched this video before, or recently, go do it.  It’s worth your time.  In fact, I’m listening to it now as I finish this post.

But, the format of the “why” question in this meeting was somewhat different, yet just as interesting.  The bottom line is this.  If you are really interested in understanding anything – I mean really interested, you need to ask “why” and also “how”?  Indeed, the Japanese have a belief that you don’t completely understand anyone’s point of view unless you ask “why” no less than 5 times.  Here’s a brief, yet insightful example.  

Now, what is startling, is how seldom we hear the question, “why”?  Think about any cocktail party, or a recent meeting.  Chances are you asked or were asked the who, what when and where, but not the “why?”  Maybe you made a connection, but maybe you didn’t.  But, when you ask “why”, or someone asks you why, that conversation immediately adds depth, and the beginnings of a relationship, and a real conversation start to form.  The reason is because the questions of who, what, when, where are urgent, but the question of “why” (and “how”) are the truly important ones.

Asking “why” is critical to the appraisal of any business.  Take a set of financial forecasts or projections (there is an accounting difference between the two but in business vernacular they are interchangeable).  Financial projections can be the product of painstaking, detailed analysis, or the outcome of fantasy.  The way to tell this difference is to ask, “why?”.  Why will your customers not churn?  Why will new customers come to you?  Why will your sales force be effective?  Why will profit turn around in two years?  Why is your projected margin higher than that of your peers?  You learn so much from those questions – much more than who, what, when, where.

Take a more basic scenario – say you’re at a networking party and you meet an angel investor.  If your a founder of a tech startup, you are inclined to ask a) who are you? b) what kinds of companies do you invest in? c) where can I reach you?  d) when can I meet you?.  How often do you ask, “why do you invest in such risky companies?”  If you ask that question, (and some why’s after that) you will learn so much more about that person and her investment thesis than with the more mundane questions and you will accelerate the relationship, because asking “why” is a signal that you want a relationship – not just a transaction.  

If you’re talking to a sales prospect, asking “why” is often the difference between closing a sale (or receiving a definitive “no”) and endless prospect limbo.  Asking “why” enables you to learn what really matters to the customer, and then you can figure out how you can (or if you can’t) meet the customer’s fundamental need.

Please join me in becoming a why-vangelist.  Ask “why” as often as you can.  Ask “why” repetitively so you can probe more deeply. You will learn so much more than the superficial questions of who, what, when, and where.  Your relationships will be much more fulfilling (even personal ones).


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