In the August/September issue, J. Kevin Beardsley asserted that purchasing professionals need to be prepared to ask two pivotal “why” questions when driving change in their organizations. As Kevin pointed out in his article, asking the right questions is a prerequisite to bringing about management and organizational change within an organization. I would add that a buyer asking the right questions of his or her suppliers helps ensure suitable quality levels for the purchase of the agency's goods and services.

We train buyers to learn to ask questions as an information-gathering tool, and that forms the basis of our business decisions. Asking the right questions is a learned skill, and it's not easy to master.

Buyers not only need to learn the right questions to ask, but they also must learn how to ask questions. Don't ask one or two questions and then rush straight toward a solution. With an incomplete understanding of the problem, it's very easy to jump to the wrong conclusions.

The “why” questions discover the roots of the problem, and the “how” questions discover the different pathways to solving the problem. Along with their first cousins — the “what if” and “who” questions — the “why” and “how” questions form the basis of decision making for your organization. Keep these four types of questions in your mind when you start.

Before you start, make a detailed list of questions and determine what you want to accomplish. Asking the right question of the right person makes your job easier; who says so is as important as the answers. Look for bias or hidden agendas. A good salesman will never badmouth a competitor's product or service. Instead, he or she will point out the advantages of the product over the competition.

When vendors make claims about their products or services, ask yourself, “How do they know what they know? Is it based on their own experiences and testing or that of others? Are they just repeating information without verification, or are their answers based on facts that have been verified?” I tend to focus on language, and when I hear terms such as “new and improved,” “industrial-strength,” “professional-quality” or “meets our rigid standards,” I usually check my back pocket to see if my wallet is still there. They are meaningless words, not substantiated facts. I feel more comfortable when I hear “meets ANSI or federal standards” or any third-party verification that will give me assurances that a product or service has been tested independently.

As you start to form your decisions based on the answers to your questions, ask yourself, “What's missing?” The answers you receive may be incomplete and designed to lead you in a particular direction. Not everyone is as honest as you; they may feed you bits of information and leave out salient facts.

Beware of someone changing the subject on you — that is, mixing facts with conclusions. It's another tactic designed to lead you in a particular direction. Scot Case calls this the “sin of irrelevance”: factually correct, but irrelevant.

Lastly, consider if the answers that you receive (and the decisions that you make based on those answers) make sense to you. There is no substitute for common sense. Likewise, don't discount that “gut feeling” that usually is correct. If it doesn't feel right, or sound right, you should keep looking for answers — and keep asking questions.


Frederick Marks, CPPO, VCO, is a retired purchasing officer who has held positions as a supervising buyer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as well as director of material management for Northern Virginia Community College. Contact Marks at fmarks@mindspring.com.