In his book, The Art of Client Service, Robert Solomon listed his 58 things every account person should know. Subsequent to outlining his 58 lessons, he was asked which one piece of advice a young account manager should know? He responded, “Know how to ask the right question.”

Back in the 80s I worked for a good-sized regional insurance company going through a rough period.   As one of the senior vice presidents, I was charged with finding a new ad agency in an attempt to turn things around. We needed to turn up the volume on our shout.

I went through a cursory search effort and asked in three shops, including the incumbent that had been the AoR for over forty years. I had a brief phone conversation with each of the three about what we thought we needed. Following these brief conversations, all three were scheduled to come in on the same day.

The first in was the incumbent. They showed up at the reception desk wearing baseball uniforms and carrying bats. At first, I thought they might have just come from a game. As it turned out, they were pushing a concept they called the Business Assistance Team—the BAT. It was a short meeting.

The second meeting went better. Two people presented a Gold-Silver-Bronze approach to reward our B-2-B targets. They had concept boards, copy platforms, and a reasonably good rationale. We were impressed with the fact that they had presented so much with so little input—and we liked them. As they were leaving our conference room, the president and I quietly acknowledged to each other that we would give our business to this second group. We just had to get through one last presentation. Then we’d make the call and tell the second group to get started.

The third agency pitch was from of a fellow named Dick Day, director of account service at Healey Schutte & Comstock. We anticipated another short meeting—having pretty much made up our minds on agency number two. He sat down, opened his brief case and took out a blank yellow pad. That was all he brought. This was going to be a really short meeting.

Two hours later, he had convinced us that we didn’t know crap about marketing or advertising and that even our knowledge of running an insurance company was starting to sound questionable. He asked endless questions, many of which we weren’t able to answer.

His skill lay in the questions he was asking, taking us to critical issues that we had never addressed or even considered. Each question was followed by our response, which prompted a deeper, more probing question. We were defining him by the questions he was asking. That was the first of many meetings with Dick Day and the Healey Schutte group over the following years.

As Robert Solomon has said: “The right questions prove how smart you are, how well you listen, and how clearly you communicate. Above all else, asking the right question leads to formulating a smart answer, and in that answer is the kernel of an idea that addresses a challenge or solves a problem.”