Ask Smarter Questions & Get Better Solutions
By Jim Sullivan, Copyright 2014 Sullivision.com
“It is better to know some of the questions, than all of the answers.” –James Thurber
This month’s column will offer no answers to your biggest challenges in the next year.
If you’re lucky.
Most foodservice operators are cautiously optimistic about success in the next twelve months. The imprudent ones are keeping their fingers crossed on matters related to the economy, competition, prices, and consumer’s dining habits. And the smartest ones have no answers. But they’ve learned to ask the right questions.
Questions—not strategies, tactics or answers—have historically spurred innovations in science, technology, and business. Take Marty Cooper, for instance. In 1972, this 45 year-old Motorola engineer was sitting in a concept meeting with a team tasked with developing the first commercially-viable cellphone. His colleagues were focused on creating a portable phone that was tethered to a base receiver linked to the copper telephone hard line in the wall. (In 1972, the very notion of a portable phone tethered to a landline base was considered radical.) Cooper stopped the discussion by asking a question that changed the face and course of modern technology and communications: “When we make a phone call, why do we have to call a place?” he asked. “People want to talk to other people, not a house, or an office or a car.” This query propelled the team to think in a completely different direction—a truly mobile phone—which lead to the infamous DynaTac “brick” phone prototype that weighed a whopping 30 ounces, required a companion briefcase battery, and cost $3500 when it became commercially available in 1983. Today your smartphone alone is testament to the power of a question.
Over 60 years ago, Dick and Maurice “Mac” McDonald were stymied on their restaurant design, trying to fit the optimal number of dining room tables and chairs into their space and budget. The story goes that they drew and re-drew design options with chalk on a tennis court until Mac asked a simple question: “What if we got rid of the dining room and just had a walk-up window?” Twenty years later, one of Ray Kroc’s McDonald’s franchisees reportedly asked another good question: “What if the customer didn’t have to get out of their car at all?”
Knowing what to ask and how to ask it can both clarify the real issues and expose hidden opportunities and obstacles. Asking questions allows managers to work more efficiently with vendors, improve team member performance, serve customers better, and teach managers how to think instead of simply what to do. Collaborative questioning improves execution. For instance, you could tell your managers that: “Next year we’ll raise sales 20%” or ask them “What are the three most important things we can do to raise sales 20% next year?” Which one is likely to garner the better ideas and results? None of us is a smart as all of us. The skill of artful interrogation is critical in a world drowning in information and starving for insight. It’s also harder to pick up than a watermelon seed on a linoleum floor.
Smart questioning takes patience, thoughtfulness, and timing, three distinct skills in short supply in a fast-paced industry. But leaders should practice the art regularly and teach it to their peers. In an effort to spur better interrogation skills in you and your team, consider the following smart questions to ask, delineated by topic:
Repeat business. Most systems and process experts agree that the critical metric for gauging customer satisfaction is not a strategy, but a question: “Will you come back and would you recommend our restaurant to your friends?” The guest’s answer to this question is all that matters in the long run. You either did or didn’t create a valuable experience that generates repeat visits.
Performance and execution. Don’t ask “What’s most important to do in 2014?” instead ask “If every other part of our operation remained at its current level of performance, what’s the one area where improvement or change would have the greatest impact?”
Hiring. Don’t ask “What position do we have open?” Aim higher and redefine expectations by asking instead: “How well do I want the job done?”
Customer service. “What kind of service would our customers love?” The best way to define the characteristics of a world-class customer experience is to go beyond what they “like” and define instead what they’d love. Once defined, you ask a second question: “What are our current gaps in delivering service they’d love?” Then: “How do we bridge those gaps?”
Priorities. “What do I never want to happen?” This question can help you more clearly define the most important things—the Big Rocks–in your business. If you never want to have a food safety incident then you then can specify the process and training critical to prevention.
Process. Challenging the process can be done with six questions: “Why do we do it this way? Why do we do it all? What if we did it another way? If our restaurant was perfect, what would it look like? How would we know when we got there? What kind of training exactly is necessary to get us to that level?”
Goals. Always clarify and verify after setting performance goals with your managers. Ask: “What exactly has to be done? What do we need to do, by when? What can I do to help you?”
The solution to any good question isn’t in the answer, it’s in the execution. And the quickest way to execute is not by saying “Get going!” It’s asking “What are the key things we need to do today and tomorrow and the day after that to get this accomplished together?” Albert Einstein–a man whose very name is synonymous with brilliance—had this to say: “I have no particular talent, I am merely inquisitive.” Questions are the levers of change. Questions are the Answers.
Jim Sullivan is a popular keynote speaker at foodservice conferences worldwide. You can get his product catalog at Sullivision.com, see his training videos on NRN.com and follow him on Twitter @Sullivision.