Entrepreneurs are always asking. We ask for resources, ideas, funding, partnerships, and so many other things. Our success depends on our ability to ask successfully. Here are the four steps to acing your next ask, courtesy of Joan Bragar of the Boston Center for Leadership Development.

1. Relationship First

Imagine going to a singles event at a bar. A person of your preferred gender approaches you and asks, "Want to get married?" You might laugh, but you're certainly not going to get hitched (at least not yet).

In business, many people seem to think that they can go directly from first meeting to marriage when making an ask. Instead, a successful ask in business, as in personal life, depends on establishing a relationship first.

Establishing a relationship means making a personal connection with the other person. You do this by sharing information about yourself and asking questions. The specific questions depend on the context, the person, and your comfort level. But it's important to make some connection before you get down to business. Not sure how to connect? Try these tips on how to be a great conversationalist at an office party and how to turn a contact into a customer.

2. Sharing a Vision that Inspires the Other Person

After you have established a personal connection, share your vision of a better future. Build on your connection with the other person and explore how your vision might appeal to the other person. Your goal is to find the spark of excitement in the other person, the idea that makes them sit up and listen.

For example, if you're an entrepreneur building a business that offers home delivery of environmentally friendly laundry services, you'll need to ask questions to find the connections, such as:

  • Have you ever wished that your laundry could appear in your bedroom folded and cleaned effortlessly?
  • The average person spends two hours of time every week on laundry. How much are two hours of your time worth?
  • What would you enjoy spending two hours on the weekend doing something other than laundry? Can you see yourself doing that?

Through your questions, you learn what the other person cares about and what is important to them. Their answers help you quickly gauge whether you might have a match.

3. Exploring Opportunities

People used to call this next stage "making the pitch." Instead, Bragar recommends thinking about it as exploring opportunities. Your job is to help the other person see what could be and explore how they might benefit from involvement. How do you do this?

The first step is to describe possibilities. You should have a mental checklist of options so if Possibility #1 doesn't resonate, you can move on quickly to Possibility #2. For example:

  • We're looking for partners who are interested in seeing this kind of service available in your area.
  • We would like to talk with people in our target market so we can learn more about their service preferences and use that information to shape our offerings.

4. Finally, the Ask

Now, and only now, comes the request for action. Your request isn't big ("Would you give us $10M in funding?"). Instead, it's a small step that the person can easily accept or decline. The response to that small step gives you an important indication of whether the person wants to continue exploring with you.

The specific request depends on the context and the nature of your work. Our laundry entrepreneur might ask for one of these next steps:

  • How about if we set up a time for me to come and share our project details with you in person?
  • Would you connect me with your colleague, Jim, who you mentioned might be interested in our work?
  • Would you attend an open house next week where we'll get customer feedback?

Of course, it's important gauge your ask to the situation. If an angel investor has the pen poised to write a big check, don't ask for something small. Calibrate your ask to their level of engagement and excitement.

The Bottom Line: Relationship -> Vision -> Opportunity, Then Ask

If you follow these four steps, you'll increase your chances of getting to a successful ask. Good luck!