Service of Asking the Right Questions

June 24th, 2013

Categories: Advertising, Hotels, Marketing, Public Relations, Questions, Real Estate, Remodeling

I’d like to share a few questions to ask in a range of circumstances that might save you from costly mistakes in time and money. Asking the right questions will serve you far better in evaluating a vendor and ensuring a positive outcome than depending on websites that direct readers to the best ones.


When hiring a marketing, PR or advertising agency, ask to speak with four or five former clients. There are countless legitimate reasons a company changes vendors. The test of the character and smarts of the principals can often be found with those with whom they are no longer associated professionally.

You’ll learn if the counsel was sound and the work top quality; if the account people fit the company’s culture and how responsive they were as marketing needs changed. The fact that an agency is still in touch with its former clients—or isn’t–also says a lot.


Hiring a contractor? Ask for contact information for his/her last three to five jobs. You’ll likely have a more accurate picture of the good and the bad when you call these people for recommendations than if you let the contractor make the picks. My first encounter with a contractor was disappointing and shocking because we thought we’d done our due diligence. We’d spoken with the homeowners and visited nine jobs: Three for each contender. But all the choices of jobs were the contractors’.


Booking a hotel with a lineup of ballrooms? Ask who is scheduled for the adjacent rooms and what their entertainment plans and schedules are. This became obvious one night when nobody could hear the speakers in our room because the relentlessly earsplitting band next door wouldn’t take a break even though hotel staff and event producers pleaded with this uncooperative neighbor-for-the-night.

The cocktail hour at another event took place in the generously proportioned hallway in front of the ballroom. The hotel had proposed this concept to all its clients. Trouble was the women at the event on the way to ours were dressed as southern belles, with huge hoop skirts that took up all the floor space. We had a difficult and uncomfortable time reaching our destination. The hotel should have put the belles at the end of the hallway, not near the elevator. Nobody asked.

Buying or Renting a House

Ask about weather anomalies. In North Dakota I lived on an Air Force base in the last house in a line of two family homes. Wind on our–and on all corners–was so fierce that far more snow piled up in our driveway than in anyone else’s.

I wonder how many of these questions are universal and if they would apply in any culture. Did any of them surprise you? Hope you’ll share your tips for questions to ask in these or other instances.

10 Responses to “Service of Asking the Right Questions”

  1. Lucrezia Said:

    It always pays to ask former customers, or if appropriate, former colleagues for references, and never, if possible question friends or family. Emotions are just about always poor indicators of quality or lack of same.

    Regardless of how astute one is, there’s always the risk of getting fingers burned. At times a sixth sense may function better than logic. Other times, no – but hey, that’s life. It’s also when one must learn to roll with the punches, and perhaps learn from them.

  2. JPM Said:

    You ask about the universality of your questions and their applicability across cultures. I am an American, but I believe I am well qualified to answer with a loud “Yes. They are universal and applicable across cultures!”

    The two best bosses I ever had were a Saudi and a Colombian. The worst was an American female of uncertain age who got to keep her job only because of her kinship with a famous and much feared all-powerful Southern Democrat US Senator. The best employees I ever had were a German, a Turk, an Indian and a half blooded Polynesian — two males, two females. Among the worst were a former star linebacker on the Harvard football team and a very smart member of a minority group with European citizenship — both males. There are few countries in the world where I have not done business.

    What one looks for in any working relationship, competence, integrity, loyalty and so forth, doesn’t change depending on where you are. What does change from culture to culture is the definition of such qualities.

    To take a specific example, in our culture, people with integrity don’t pay bribes. (Although that seems to be clearly changing given what is now going on in Albany and with how lobbyists get congress to bend to their will in Washington.) In many foreign cultures, people with integrity do pay bribes. That is how business does get done.

    In my experience, foreigners investing in this country and Americans investing abroad lose money. It is almost always because they haven’t taken the time, or made the effort, to understand the culture of where they are investing. Consequently, they make bad decisions.

  3. Tugce Sagiroglu Said:

    Asking for the former client is a crucial thing to do nowadays when the information on the internet is unreliable at times. Coming from a very unique cultural background, I would definitely turn to people who received the service before I did but only in certain areas. In terms of an agency I believe, it would be foolish to hire someone without doing a research on their previous jobs. However; it might be considered as slightly rude to ask the agency about their previous clients. It would indicate that the client is suspicious and distrustful of the agency. It is mainly because trust is an important part of daily life in Turkey.

    When hiring a contractor, people in Turkey would ask their friends and family if they could refer anyone. Even only one person’s referral would be enough to hire. No one asks a contractor to direct them to their previous customers.

    As in the hotel example, it would be absolutely appropriate to ask about the next door events, even though it’s not common. My aunt, whenever she stays at a hotel, asks the receptionist about the people next door hoping to find out if they are loud or not. I’ve seen her husband getting angry when she asks such questions thinking that it’s rude.

    Asking about weather conditions when renting a house in Turkey wouldn’t be a priority. As relationship with neighbors is much valued in this culture, the first thing to ask about the future house would be who lives next door, whether they are friendly and if they are noisy or not.

  4. Martha Takayama Said:

    All of the recommended questions in this post seem universally applicable. Subtleties or variation should only affect the manner or style in which you pose them to others.
    In being guided by questions of this nature the decision maker takes responsibility for his determinations. This behaviour should minimize the hazard of being misled by all the internet options for recommendations, “likes” etc. which can be designed and uploaded by suppliers themselves or their supporters.

    It is naive, and foolish to accept predesignated lists of recommendations as well as narrow descriptions of opportunities or facilities being offered without taking into consideration the broad reality of what you are embarking on. More questions asked and answered in a civil and careful fashion should undoubtedly insure better results and avoid disappointment and unpleasantness that could extend beyond the actual matter under consideration.

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I’ve had some good referrals from family and friends I trust and have gotten business as a result of friends recommending me however I can see how things might turn sour. Say the contractor has a bad three months–the three months he/she is working on your project and the recommendation has come from a friend or family member. Some might even take advantage of the relationship to shortchange on work quality. Therefore, in general, it’s probably a good idea to be selective when doing so.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Tugce, whose comment comes right after yours, illustrates one of your points: Study the country in which you are doing business or you can lose money. Imagine offending a prospective ad, PR or marketing agency inadvertently by asking the question “May we please have the names of some of your former clients,” when most wouldn’t blink being asked that question in the States. How many had wished they’d done just that here! I once worked for a very short time for sleazy character whose business model was to promise the moon, cash the fee, do nothing for a few months and move on to another client. He came off all smiles when he met prospects!

    I agree with you on the bribes issue as well. Americans can be so naïve and sound sanctimonious [and foolish to me] when they accuse corporations doing business in such a country of bribing when such activity is a recognized cost of doing business–otherwise business doesn’t happen.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:


    The problem with looking at a website and not asking for previous clients is that the agency, like the contractor who provides his/her best clients, weeds out just the people you would want to speak with before forging a business relationship. How wonderful that you can trust people as you do in Turkey.

    It’s interesting, also, that Lucrezia suggested just the opposite of what you describe as happening in Turkey: She wrote NOT to ask friends and family and yet personal relationships are essential for you. Fascinating–and terrific–that you are learning the cultural differences. You also prove that we have a bit more to go [if the Euro wasn’t enough of a clue] before our global economy is truly one big happy family. Well….not every family is happy so perhaps we are already there!

    As for your aunt, I bet I’d like her! What spunk! If I had a ton of stuff to take to meetings at the hotel I might ask not to be in the room that’s farthest from the elevator, while at the same time, avoiding rooms that were closest to it–too noisy! The questions I posed were for large functions. My husband would roll his eyes as your uncle does!

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I’m with you: The more questions asked the better, especially when deciding between several companies or agencies or contractors. The most obvious reason is to help pick the best choice for you/the job. It’s also a great way to learn about the project at hand.

  9. Dhanya Hemanth Raj Said:

    Great Post Jeanne!

    I can definitely relate with the above. Having lived in New York and in Chennai, a metropolitan Indian city, I have to say that things are a little different in India.

    When hiring a contractor, most people only hire based on referrals given by another member of the family. Even then at least one member of the family should be fully involved with the ongoing work. One must be very careful and look through the accounts to see if the contractor has over charged or has billed any unnecessary items. There is a lot of room for fraud, a close watch over any civil construction is absolutely necessary. Although it is not fair to generalize this is the general scenario throughout India.

    Only the bigger hotels have more than one ballroom or large reception hall. These are usually used for weddings, which are quite noisy (all Indian weddings are that way). The hotel usually will take care of this and will inform you that another wedding or event is happening. Yes but I definitely agree with you that inquiring about the events in neighboring conference halls is a good idea and one that I have not thought of before.

    It does not really snow in India, but it does rain a lot in most parts. Floods and drought are common. Definitely good advice to inquire whether the house that you are about to rent or buy is in a low lying area or not; just to make sure that half your house is not under water when it does rain in the monsoon season.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:


    About the contractor situation, if you don’t keep an eagle eye on things here I can assure you that you will be fleeced and that someone must oversee the project and it best be a family member or friend who can be there daily. We paid a man to oversee a project upstate and the only thing he did in the most timely manner was send in his bill and take his share of the cost of the work of so-called craftsmen he introduced us to. He must have had bad eyesight [or he never visited the job]. Mitering of wood molding looked as though it had been done by a third grade carpentry class and I won’t take up time to share the huge list of mistakes made under his so-called watch.

    As for projects completed in NYC, my father used to say that workers filled holes in city streets with toothpaste–the holes came back in such a short period of time. I roll my eyes when I see mounds of tar and other signs of sloppy execution by road maintenance crews that were I in charge of the projects, nobody would be paid until someone came back to fix the mess.

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