Yet asking good questions is not an easy task. It requires us to look beyond traditional questions and answers and to encourage our team members to do the same. It requires being open to new ideas. It requires being willing to listen and being diligent in our follow up.
I believe there are two essential questions that are useful in a variety of contexts in the workplace. In fact, these two questions are so important that they are the only two questions that I must ask on a daily basis. I believe these questions are tremendously valuable for anyone in a position to lead or influence others.
We need to ask these two simple questions of ourselves and our team every single day:
1. Does it contribute to revenue?
Does the activity I am engaged in currently contribute to generating revenue? Some activities like sales prospecting are obvious. Other activities like mailing out birthday cards to clients every year on their birthday or calling customers to let them know we’ve deposited their last post-dated cheque might not be so obvious but client retention is an important revenue generator.
I once asked my team this very question when they were placing very expensive newspaper ads that required a significant investment in graphic design and advertising costs. They responded “Well yes, of course it does”. I didn’t disagree entirely however I did ask this next question: “What is the most important sales activity you could be engaged in right now?” and “Is there a better way to do this activity?”
The response turned out to be “The most important sales activity we could be engaged in is calling clients to suggest additional services.” The team knew that direct contact with our clientele was the most effective manner of increasing sales. Ads might be easy but not always the most effective.
A direct or indirect path to revenue generation is what is most important.
2. Does it decrease expenses?
Does the activity I am engaged in decrease expenses directly or indirectly? Things like re-using clean waste paper as scrap paper not only decrease our use of notepads; it also benefits the environment. I love these activities that help our bottom line and help us be more socially responsible corporate citizens. Some activities may appear to help us lower our expenses but they actually cost the company money.
I once worked with an owner that insisted on mailing paper copies of statements to all their clients even when it was clear that 95% of the clients would welcome digital invoicing. It cost thousands of dollars every month to continue this practice and it had a negative environmental impact.
If the activity doesn’t increase sales or decrease expenses then we need to take a hard look at the activity. Why are we doing this? How does it contribute to the company? We get “stuck” doing the same things over and over without asking why we are doing it and how it contributes to the overall growth of the company.
As a manager, I regularly ask my staff “Why are we doing this?” I get all kinds of answers from employees.
“We’ve always done it this way.”
“My manager told me to.”
“I like doing it this way.”
“Everyone else is doing it.”
Asking “why” helps them get them focused on what is most important. Businesses exist to generate revenue. Even social enterprise exist to provide services. Being more efficient only contributes to the greater good.
Over the course of years our team got really good at asking this question and paring off the unnecessary activities.
- We became a very lean operation
- Our sales increased
- Our expenses decreased
- Our team knew exactly what they should be doing and why
As we seek new ways to increase profits we need to ask good questions of our team members. We need them to ask themselves: “how does this increase sales or decrease expenses?” In doing so we create high performing teams that are laser focused on increasing sales and optimizing operations.