In this article, Keeward CEO Cyril Hadji-Thomas goes through the various scenarios in which clients can often come to us asking the wrong questions, and how we like to reframe their problems in a way that ensures we’ll find a solution together.

I have a confession to make. I never wanted to be an engineer, a marketing man or a strategist. I didn’t even want to be an entrepreneur. I always wanted to be a doctor.

Listening to patients and delicately driving them to tell you the exact nature and intensity of their pain or symptoms feels natural to me. I think I do that with my friends and colleagues all the time. Sometimes, I get so excited watching House on TV, my wife must think that her twisted husband is having a semi-orgasm.

She may not be far from the truth.

That said, I am an engineer and an entrepreneur and, when we founded Keeward a few years ago, we had in mind the very specific idea that we would go further into analyzing and solving business problems than anyone had done before. Placing the success of our clients’ and partners’ businesses—not just the completion of a mere mission—as a goal requires the same kind of talent that a doctor has. Our objective is not to ease the pain or make a symptom disappear, but to heal the body and, sometimes, the mind.

In order to reach the essence of a problem, you may have to disregard the immediate request of your client. In that case, I know that I can be very annoying—almost mean—and push him or her to “cut the crap” and go deeper into the description of the problem.

Imagine a very clever patient, PhD and all, going to see his physician.

“Doctor,” he begins breathlessly, dabbing his glistening forehead with a handkerchief long soaked through with sweat. “I don’t feel well at all; I’m out of breath all the time, I can’t climb two steps without being exhausted, my skin is whiter than it should be, and my pulse is arrhythmic.”

The patient’s speech quickened and, by the end of his sentence, he was perched perilously at the edge of his chair.

“I’ve done my research!” he says. “Asked some colleagues, and I’m sure I need a heart transplant, because mine is failing rapidly.”

How likely is it that the doctor would nod in agreement to the patient’s desparate self-diagnosis, turn to his agenda, and pencil in a heart transplant for the following day?

Chances are, the physician will sit the man down, talk about his symptoms, examine him carefully, order some tests, and finally, suggest the right treatment to his illness (which, in that case, may just have been over-anxiety).

Recently a gentleman, let’s call him Mr. X, came to me through a client and friend of mine. We had an appointment at my office and, after exchanging niceties and offering him an espresso, I listened attentively to the presentation of his business and the reason why he thought that we could help him build an e-commerce website and manage his web marketing strategy.

Mr. X’s company is dedicated to bicycle chain manufacturing. Mr. X is smart, and succeeded in making his business a world leader in his field. He seemed to understand his clients’ needs, the trends in the market, and had strong ethics and a good moral standing. When Mr. X ended his speech, I reclined slightly in my chair—a habit of mine—and start talking. I told him, gently, that I don’t think Keeward could help him, and that he didn’t need an e-commerce website. He was doing very well in social media, his brand is strong, and he probably did not need me to improve it.

I did however, and much to his surprise, start talking to him about his supply chain management, pinpointing the lack of integration of his supply services toward his faithful customers, and how he could build a complete ecosystem by providing them the service they deserved. If he could deepen his relationship with retailers and wholesalers by providing them with a “Software As a Service” approach to help them build his business according to the need of the consumer.

It’s very difficult for anyone to identify the weakness of their own business, build a digital strategy accordingly, and plan the restructuring of the company without the help of an external advisor. Strategic consulting firms have made a living out of this realization for decades now.

But the really hard part isn’t identifying the illness, it’s curing it. Listening to a client’s point of view about his problems and needs is like listening to a patient talking about his pain and symptoms. What the client thinks about the solution isn’t necessarily pivotal, but where he or she is instrumental is in being the only person who can analyze the intensity of the pain, the symptoms, and the frequency of its manifestations.

Sometimes, there are no questions at all. An entrepreneur could come to us with no clue about why sales just stay flat, or why he can’t convert Facebook likes into real customers.

“This isn’t working, what should I do?” is often heard around the halls of Keeward. Answering that question is a trap in itself. First of all, the fact that the entrepreneur came to us means he has imagined that we can help, which may not be the case. So the real challenge is to identify why he has come to us, and then think together about all the little elements of what the problem might be according to him. Once again, we need to dig up the pieces of the question, shape it together, and then go to the next step.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that all clients are stupid and that we know what’s good for them more than they do. In fact, I think exactly the opposite. I usually know very little about my client’s real business, but I know how to make him or her see it in a different way so that we can join both our understandings and point of views in order to define a good strategy.

That’s why reshaping the question is so important. By pushing the client to his or her limits, you can identify the right questions and that’s usually the first step to coming to the right answer.

The same argument applies to the relationship between an author, or an artist, and his publisher. When reading a manuscript, the publisher identifies the quality of the text itself and its potential at the same time. Sometimes, a very poor manuscript has so much potential that you need to meet with the author just to push him further.

As publishers, we read tens of manuscripts per week, and analyze the same amount of digital business opportunities per month. We deal with the same symptoms, finding new solutions—solutions that are more elegant and more efficient, everyday.

It isn’t pretentious to say that we have more insight than our clients or authors when they come to seek our help. It’s common sense—why else would they be coming to us in the first place? Knowing this, it would be obscene and irresponsible to just go along with what they think you should do for them, when you know full well that that won’t lead to a project reaching its full potential. It may lead to difficult relationships at times and challenging conversations, but success and innovation require stepping well out of comfort zones.

Answering the same question over and over again leads to answering that question well, and with an abundance of varying answers. Changing its point of view—or even changing the question—is a good start to doing things better—differently.

So differently that you would never had thought that it could be possible.

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