Once upon a business life I self-published a ‘book’ for the caravanning market. Knowing little about these boxes on wheels and kidding myself the product was half-decent, I led a telesales department (me) and phoned UK caravan outlets in search of volume purchases.
Remarkably, a Bristol-based company took interest. Excited by the response from the other end of the line I immediately suggested a meeting.
Please note, I didn’t own a car back then, yet the opportunity to hire one, drive the 500+ mile return journey from York and ‘have a meeting’ (all in one day) felt like true entrepreneurial progress.
Four long hours on the road was followed by 27 quick minutes of chat with chain-smoking ‘Dave’. And whilst I endured the tasteless and tiered liquid that the machine had dared to label ‘coffee’, Dave flicked through the entire book.
Uncertain how best to progress the meeting I offered random ideas for working together. Being so green in 1990, I took the phrase ‘we’ll get back to you’ as a positive sign.
Of course there was to be no fairytale ending. After waiting several days, I got on the phone. Dave was busy. His PA passed on the inevitable news.
Hitchhiking repeatedly put me in situations where I had to develop rapport with people at very short notice. Without realising, it taught me much about questioning, listening and the rhythms of conversation.
However, in terms of business meetings, the experience of jumping in and out of cars also served to encourage impulsive behaviour and probably created over-confidence. And to be completely honest, the Bristol ‘incident’ was not isolated; I wince at how much money and time I wasted in meetings that I screwed up or should never have gone to in the first place.
Unfortunately, it was another 3 years before I learnt how to handle business meetings properly. By chance, I found myself on a training course that revealed the secrets of how to make the most of the time with other people. What I discovered has stayed with me to this day.
Any meeting needs a context and purpose that all parties understand beforehand. If the point of the meeting is unclear or unknown, then you’re likely to be wasting time.
Being objective also helps with wider planning and preparation. Depending on the nature of your meeting, it’s essential that you complete some research so you know something about the people and the organisation; this fact-finding will also help shape questions that you will inevitably ask and ultimately demonstrate you care about those you are meeting.
It goes without saying that you’ll want to turn up on time, take something for notes, look the part and be courteous. But the really important stuff starts with the next bit…
Control and Confidence
My Bristol experience was a disaster because I was out of control throughout the meeting. Lack of preparation and understanding of how to achieve anything worthwhile meant everything ‘happened to me’.
Control is achieved in part through good preparation. But control at the meeting comes from having a flexible structure that also meets the needs of the people you are seeing. Regardless of the type or length of meeting you have, here is a structure that has worked for me for many years:
- Ask questions
- Establish needs
- Propose Solutions
- Commitment to Action/Close
The ‘Open’ allows you to talk about neutral issues that are nothing to do with the meeting. It relaxes people when they first meet and helps build rapport. Going straight into ‘business’ is insensitive; unless of course you only have 5 minutes together.
The ‘Agenda’ is the point at which you talk about the purpose of the meeting and give it direction. Occasionally the other person might do this for you. Without an agenda, meetings can ramble. Here is an example of a simple agenda statement which you can adapt:
“Many thanks for the meeting today. As you know, I run ABC Ltd and I’m interested to know whether there may be opportunities to work together. Would it be ok if I first asked you some questions to better understand what you do?”
The agenda sets up the opportunity to ask questions which is so important if you are in a meeting to identify as well as resolve a problem. Without asking questions (even if it is to get the other party to confirm the situation for the sake of all round the table) it is all too easy to make assumptions or try and solve the wrong problem. Tips! Open questions reveal more information. Show listening by recording what is being said. A good first question – ‘How much time do you have?’
The questions you ask help to ‘establish needs’. Needs are not just related to the specific problem in hand. The ‘needs’ you are seeking to identify concern other peoples’ behaviour and thus help you to decide how best to approach work. For example, if you meet Alan Sugar, you will pick up a completely different set of needs compared to meeting someone who is relaxed and laid back.
Once you understand the problem through asking questions and establishing needs, you are in a better position to propose solutions. The solution may be a further meeting or it may be time to sell the benefits of your idea/service/product. If you want to persuade others of the value of what you have to offer, make the benefits of your solution tangible, appealing and transparent.
Finally, don’t leave a meeting unless it is clear what is happening next. Gain commitment to action so that the process with which you are involved moves forward. If it’s not clear what’s happening next take responsibility and seek clarity, otherwise the meeting will end up being a complete waste of time.
The structure highlighted above is flexible and appropriate for meetings that last 10 minutes or 3 hours. You can use the structure to control meetings without people feeling controlled and the experience will give you confidence too. Of course, if you are the one having to go to meetings that ramble on inanely, copy the above and send it to the person who is in charge. And if all else fails, just don’t go.
Key Learning Points: Wasting time in meetings is frustrating and costly. Look to make the most of meeting time through planning, preparation and use of a flexible structure that gives you both control and confidence. Practice and learn from experience.