Asking lots of questions leads to the best path

“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill bit. They want a quarter-inch hole.” This quote by Theodore Levitt, Harvard Business School Professor, underscores the importance of understanding the needs of users if you truly want to accommodate them.

But even in this example, knowing that they want the quarter-inch hole doesn’t go far enough (as Seth Godin writes in "This Is Marketing," the book our team is currently reading together). You need to think about WHY they want that quarter inch hole – what their end goal is.

It’s really no different here at the university. Whether your primary audience is students, faculty, staff, or business partners, it’s essential to understand their end-goals to know how to communicate with them and provide the tools and resources they need to succeed. 

For instance, it’s easy to assume that students attend UIUC so that they can graduate and get a good job. But is that always the case? A recent survey of first-year students in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences showed that over half of respondents decided to go to college because they love learning and wanted to continue their education. Knowing this will change how you market to prospective students – whether you should emphasize how we can help them on their career path or help them pursue their passions. Each path requires a very different message. And knowing which path to take starts with asking the right questions.

In a recent webinar, Bozoma Saint John, CMO of Netflix, talked about what it takes to be brave in business. For her, bravery is “being able to be vulnerable – vulnerable enough to ask the question out loud.” And that is what it takes to be successful. To make the changes necessary to succeed – to take the best path forward –  requires knowing everything you can, by continually asking questions.

This is what we need to do for the university to succeed. We need to push aside our assumptions, to forget what we think we know, and start asking more and more questions. We may just get validation of what we already knew, but we may also find out that what our students or business partners or faculty are looking for is different than what we thought. It all starts with asking questions.