Over the past decade, we believe we have learned some valuable principles about how to effectively sell facilitation services.  Several of the principles relate to key questions you should ask during interviews and client meetings. Imagine the following scenario.

The Scenario

The executive director of a large non-profit organization is needing to choose between two facilitators for an upcoming two-day session.  One facilitator is from the local area.  The other is from out of town, and the fees are 30% higher than the first.  The client has arranged separate telephone conversations with both facilitators, starting with the local facilitator.

“Tell me about what you want to have done,” asked the first facilitator.

The executive director described her need to develop a strategic plan for her non-profit organization.  She explained that they had developed a plan three years before, and it was time to refresh it.  The facilitator described the process he would use and told her he would provide her a proposal that would include a list of clients he had worked with in the past. 

The executive director was pleased with what she heard.  She thought the facilitator’s process was appropriate and felt comfortable with the facilitator’s style.  She was pretty sure that she would take advantage of the savings and convenience of using this local resource.

The Second Interview

The interview with the second facilitator started pretty much the same – with the facilitator saying, “Tell me about what you want to have done.”  But, after the executive director described her need to refresh the plan from three years ago, this facilitator began asking a series of very focused questions.

“What did you like about the former planning process?”

“What worked, and what didn’t work?”

“What would you do differently?”

When the executive director explained that there was little follow-up and monitoring, the facilitator asked: “Why do you think that occurred? What should we do to make sure that doesn’t happen again?”

The executive director thought about it and realized it was probably important to keep the plan in front of the full board on a more regular basis. She asked the facilitator for ideas of how she might do this. The facilitator made several suggestions that she thought would work well with her board. The facilitator continued with questions.

“To help me better understand what you are looking to do, I would like to take you through something we call the 6 Ps. I’m going to ask you about purpose, product, participants, probable issues, process, and place. This helps me make sure I fully understand your need. You have already told me about purpose. Let’s talk about product. If we were successful over the two-day planning session, how will you know?”

The executive director explained how important it was to have strong commitment from the board. “What was done last time to build the commitment?”

The executive director realized that little was done, and this was, perhaps, one of the reasons there was little follow-through. After the facilitator asked several other questions about the product, the facilitator moved to the next “P.” “Tell me about the participants. Is there anyone I should pay special attention to? Are there people who are not in favor of the meeting, or people who generally are naysayers, or people who definitely don’t get along?”

The executive director described the board member who wanted to become chair-elect but was passed over. She explained that he tends to look for ways to nit-pick about little things as opposed to focusing on the bigger picture. The facilitator explained, “I had a similar situation when working with the XYZ Charity. It was helpful to keep that person positively engaged by asking for suggestions for how to address his concerns. I’ll be sure to be prepared to work with this person similarly if necessary. Anyone else I should be aware of?”

The executive director was a bit relieved to know that the facilitator had techniques for handling this situation. When the facilitator asked about the probable issues that would likely need to be addressed, the executive director described the problems they were having with funders and showing measurable results.

“What measurable targets are included in the current plan?”

The executive director was a bit embarrassed to say that the current plan focused mostly on strategies and did not include measurable targets. The facilitator commented, “We certainly will have to make sure the strategy process includes this step so that you will have a stronger story for your current and future funders.”

After asking the executive director if she had thoughts on the agenda for the two days, the facilitator described a sample approach and tied each step to a specific need the executive director had described. “And, finally, to help get the commitment from the board, we will ask  board members to indicate which board committee should oversee the execution of each strategy and to identify how often they wanted to review progress on the plan.”

The executive director was very pleased with the approach and could readily see how it would work very well with the board.

“I would like to get your feedback on this conversation. What do you like about what you have heard?”

The executive director indicated that she liked that the facilitator seemed to have a grasp of the situation and seemed to have a good plan for addressing her needs. She was surprised, however, by the facilitator’s next question.

“What concerns do you have about me being a good fit for your needs?”

She couldn’t think of any concerns and said, “Well, of course, I need to check your references. But, at this point, I don’t have any concerns.” 

By the end of the hour-long telephone conversation, the executive director couldn’t figure out how it happened, but she certainly felt that this facilitator had a far better understanding of her needs. In fact, while she had been very comfortable after her discussion with the first facilitator, she was clear now how they spent little time talking about the real issues.

She felt confident that the second facilitator would do a much better job and would be well worth the extra expense. But, she couldn’t help but wonder, “What had the second facilitator done to gain her confidence?”

5 Key Facilitative Interviewing Tips

By doing a better job of understanding our client’s need and gaining the client’s confidence, our facilitators are often more successful. What can you do to gain the confidence of a client or potential employer? As with the scenario above, consider the following:

1. Be proactive, not passive, in the conversation. Ask initial questions and probing follow-up questions to fully understand the needs. (“What worked, and what didn’t work? Why do you think that occurred?”)

2. Be thorough. Take the client or employer through the 6 Ps to make sure you thoroughly understand purpose, product, participants, probable issues, process, and place of the current state of the project or position you are seeking.

3. Be informative. Let the client or employer know the techniques you use. Name them. Demonstrate them. Explain the benefit. (“To help me better understand what you are looking to do, I would like to take you through something we call the 6 Ps.”)

4. Show experience. Mention one or two prior clients or past employers, where appropriate. Explain how that experience benefits the client. (“I had a similar situation when working with the XYZ Charity…”)

5. Show you listened. Link the meeting agenda and process to their needs. Explain the steps you will take, why you will take them, and how the steps address the needs they identified. (“And, finally, to help get the commitment from the board, we will ask board members to…”)

We believe using these key principles will enable you to better gain the confidence of clients or potential employers that you understand their needs and can deliver solutions that will meet or exceed their expectations.

Looking for additional strategies for defining a client’s need and building confidence? Register for the three-day course, The Facilitative Consultant.