Waiter or Doctor … Which One Are You?

I had dinner this past Monday night with my old college friend, Rob.

Rob lives in Vancouver and I live in Boston, so it doesn’t happen very often. In fact, it’s been 15 years since we’d last seen each other.

Fortunately, and as is often the case with people who’ve seen you drunk, high, naked and stupid (usually not all at once), it didn’t take long to get reacquainted.

Rob had asked me to pick a restaurant downtown and I settled on The Black Rose, a spot so quintessentially Boston Irish that they list a “Pint of Guinness” as an appetizer on the menu.

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Other enticing heart-stoppers include Shepherd’s Pie ($15), Bangers and Mash ($16) and Buttermilk Fried Chicken (6 months off your estimated life expectancy).

We weren’t there long before the waiter came by, introduced himself and took our order. A few minutes later, we were happily eating and drinking.

Now as it turns out, I had visited my doctor that very morning. All went well (I had not yet eaten the fried chicken), and she recommended some follow-up tests and actions.

It struck me later that a visit to a restaurant and a visit to a doctor share several things in common.

In both situations, you arrive with a problem in hand – “I’m hungry” or “My leg hurts” – and the professional who’s waiting on you presents a solution, whether that’s Guinness Beef Stew or an MRI.

There is, however, one critical difference between your interaction with your waiter and your interaction with your doctor:

Your waiter gives you a list of possibilities and asks you to choose one. He may guide you a bit, but he’s essentially an order-taker, bringing whatever you request.

Your doctor, on the other hand, doesn’t ask what you want (“Today’s special is an angioplasty. Would you like an X-Ray with that?”).

Rather, she asks broad questions regarding things that affect your overall health: How are you feeling? How much alcohol do you consume? Why are you here today?

As you respond, she follows up with ever more specific questions, always with an eye towards narrowing down what’s wrong and offering solutions regarding how it might be fixed or improved.

So now here’s the key question for you as a solo professional: When you interact with prospective clients, are you a waiter or a doctor?

If you’re a waiter, when asked to talk about your services, you rattle off a list of programs and prices, inviting the listener to choose one.

If you’re a doctor, on the other hand, you never go right to solutions. Instead, you say something like, “I’d be happy to tell you more about what I do, but do you mind if I first ask you a few questions about your business?”

Then, as a doctor does, you probe (insert your own inappropriate joke here): What’s not working? How long have you had this problem? How have you tried to fix it yourselves? Why do you think you need help from somebody outside your organization?

And on and on, asking ever more specific questions based on the answers you receive.

Why does it matter which approach you use? Two reasons.

First, because by identifying and clarifying what your prospect needs up front, you’re much more likely to offer an appropriate solution (or walk away entirely if there isn’t a good match).

Second, because the very act of questioning people leads them to see you as expert.

Let me repeat that last sentence, because you might have missed it: The very act of questioning people leads them to see you as expert.

Why? Because only an expert, on a given topic, knows what to ask.

Only an expert – someone with a 30,000 foot view, years of experience and an understanding of how seemingly unrelated pieces fit together – has the ability to pull clarity from confusion.

The more you ask, the more obvious it becomes to the other person that you know what you’re talking about – not to mention how clueless about what’s really going on and in need of help they may be.

When the other person starts saying things like, “Oh, I never thought about that,” or “Hmm, I guess we don’t really know,” you can be sure you’re on the right track.

Here’s the bottom line. Your waiter and your doctor may both be experienced, capable and friendly. But each of their approaches to solving your “problem” is entirely different.

The more you can help frame the situation, by asking questions that help prospective clients narrow in on what really matters, the more you become the obvious solution to the problem.

How do you use questions in the way you speak to prospective clients?
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17 thoughts on “Waiter or Doctor … Which One Are You?

  1. Alexandre L'Eveille

    Love, love. love this analogy. That is a great way to explain the most authentic way to serve clients. Listening, then prescribing the best solution for their situation. It is wrong for the client and a nightmare for me If I let the client treat me like the take out window at Burger King: they don’t get an effective solution, they get a band-aid, if that; and I just get really annoyed! Fortunately that doesn’t happen anymore.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Thanks so much, Alexandre! I’m glad it was helpful. And I agree – the prospects that don’t want to engage in the Q&A first are typically not the best clients.

  2. Robert

    Your enews are always good.
    This one… darn close to great.
    Only thing missing… a photo of you and Rob.
    (Or you and your doctor which would lift this enews to amazing!)

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hello Robert!
      A picture of my doctor and me would have been great, although she’d probably shy away from that one!
      And I actually did post a photo of Rob and me on the audio version of the newsletter here:
      http://www.audioacrobat.com/note/C83F1ZLx (fortunately, it was dark in there.)
      Thanks for reading,

  3. Sunni

    Definitely agreed with that, Michael. Asking better questions is something I’m always practicing.

    Just this last month, I got some clarity from the Lean Startup about how to ask questions to do accurate market research. I was stunned that I’d been doing it wrong (or, shall we say, “substantially suboptimally” ;-)) for 17 years. I felt happy to get the clarity but seriously wanted to cry.


    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Substantially Suboptimally! I will definitely be using that phrase, Sunni.

      Was there one best piece of advice you learned from Lean Startup about doing better market research? Sounds like it was a great eye-opener for you.

      1. Sunni

        Hey Michael,

        The biggest takeaway I got from the Lean Startup movement (I forgot the “movement” word in my post, although there’s also a now-famous book called The Lean Startup by Eric Ries) is:

        Don’t go to a prospect and pitch your product / service when it’s not crystal clear if they even need it.

        Instead, go ask questions to clarify what they go through every day. Like “What does your day look like?” and “Can you talk me through the last time you…” and “How have you been dealing with that problem?”

        If you pitch an idea you have to begin the conversation, then you likely either get compliments (mostly because people don’t want to hurt your feelings or just aren’t thinking clearly about their problems because you didn’t ask them to) or criticism (which also usually doesn’t give you clarity about their exact problems).

        Rob Fitzpatrick, author of The Mom Test, has done great presentations on this stuff. Here’s one of them, called Prototyping Everything (16:48):


        I’ve been sending this to so many freelancers, consultants, and business owners and just sharing it in person. Amazing how many of us didn’t learn this stuff before. But hey, misery loves company lol.

        P.S. I dare you to make a video and say “substantially suboptimally” at least 3x fast. 😉

        1. Michael Katz Post author

          Thanks Sunni, I will check it out. I tend to “build it” and throw it out there. Interestingly, my 21-year-old son, who’s running a start up (trypickle.com) is all about what you describe. And he thinks he’s learning from me (ha ha)!

          1. Sunni

            “You’ve got mad selfie game.” That’s hilarious.

            I wonder what their revenue model is. Then again, maybe Facebook will just buy them out for a billion dollars. 🙂

            You probably know your audience pretty well, Michael. The Lean Startup approach is great for minimizing risk when going into a new market with an unproven solution.

          2. Michael Katz Post author

            The start up thing has been a great experience and education for him. And as far as I know, they don’t have a revenue model (yet). But they recently raised $100k in venture money so somebody smarter than I seems to think they’re onto something!

          3. Sunni

            The $100K sounds like a great achievement in itself.

            Who knows, he may not even need a revenue model. A bunch of companies in the social space get bought out based on their user base.

  4. Don Davies

    Yup…this is a good one. It seemed to be something I came to naturally as a Marketing Strategist. I remember one meeting where I walked in and they said, “I’m glad you’re here. We need a brochure and quick!” I said, “Why do you think you need a brochure?” They said, “Because our competitor has one.” I said, “That’s a good reason to do something other than a brochure.”

    Later, after we ran the radio spots and support newspaper ads which leap frogged them over their competitors, they said that everyone else they’d talked to before me responded to their opening request with; “What size brochure? How many colors? What’s your budget?”
    That was a great account and a relationship that lasted more than 20 years.


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