Hunting in Packs: Group Meetings with Prospective Clients

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By Gerry Riskin

If you have decided it will be advantageous for you to visit prospective clients as a pair or threesome, you need to follow certain steps carefully in order to optimize your effectiveness and minimize mistakes that can cost you a relationship before you even have one.

The selection of the team who will visit the prospective client should be based on merit and potential value rather than on seniority or entitlement. (I understand that there are situations where politics will dictate that you must do otherwise, but wherever possible you should avoid the “entitlement syndrome.”)

Meeting-room logistics. If possible and appropriate, ask for permission to get settled in the appointed room a little early (ahead of your hosts) so that the individuals you are visiting do not have to waste any time while you get set up and organized. This gives you an opportunity to do more than take papers or laptops out of your briefcases: it allows you to get settled strategically in the room. If you populate both sides of the table, for example, then you preclude a situation where there will be three hosts on one side, and three members of your team on the other. Also, avoid taking the head of the table, as that is likely to make your hosts uncomfortable. It’s an easy guess which end of the table the lead person you’re visiting will take, and one of you should sit to his or her immediate right. This is the second most powerful position in the room. With these logistical matters out of the way, when the people you are visiting arrive, you will be relaxed and poised and able to focus on introducing yourselves, shaking hands, and making appropriate smalltalk.

Acceptance of hospitality: When asked by hosts at a meeting if we would like a cup of coffee or glass of water, most of us decline. We say that we just had lunch or breakfast; we insist that we are “fine.” Our motive is not to impose unduly on our hosts, but psychologists tell us that this approach is dead wrong. They explain that the host is going through the same subtle subconscious process as a grandmother does when she offers you one of her freshly baked cookies and that, therefore, we should always say “Yes” to such invitations. It’s okay if you ask to substitute water or tea for the coffee, but never decline altogether.

Smalltalk, or the smart question. Smalltalk should not be generic, but rather should be customized to your hosts. Avoid complimenting the artwork. It might look amazing to you, but the people you are talking to might not have been on the selection committee and they might hate it. Instead, ask a smart question that only thorough advance research on your part, about the corporation and the individuals you are meeting, allows you to ask. You might say, for example: “You’ve opened more locations in Europe in the last three years than in the previous ten. What drove that decision?” Perhaps you can supplement this question with another, such as, “What unexpected challenges has that presented for you?” A quick Google search in advance of the meeting may reveal relevant late-breaking news. “I noticed your chairman’s announcement yesterday that the company will be divided in two. What can you comfortably tell me about how that impacts your division and your responsibilities?”

The presentation: We all know the joke about the presenter who apologizes that the presentation will take an hour because he did not have time to prepare one that was ten minutes long. That joke is not funny and the result will not be appreciated by the folks you are visiting. Instead, the information you were there to impart should be presented in only a few moments, possibly with a brief executive summary or outline as a “leave behind.” Unless you’re doing some sort of educational program, no one needs a whole lot of detail… they just need to get the essence.They do not want to sit there and listen to you talk. If they want more information, they will ask questions. 

Answering questions: Three common sins should be avoided when answering questions. Sin #1 is for a person to answer the question who is not the person to whom the question was posed. The motive may be innocent enough… maybe the responder thought they actually had particular knowledge or information that was relevant to the question. It is still a horrible practice and should be avoided like the plague. If the question is put to the wrong person in your group, then that wrong person can defer it to the correct person. (E.g.: “That’s a great question.” Turns to colleague Anne. “Anne, you’re the person in our group who has had the most experience dealing with the kind of situation that X is asking us about. What is your view?”) Sin #2 is for a second member of your team to answer the same question that has just been answered, supplementing the first answer. On rare occasions, if the supplement is very brief and very valuable, an exception can be made. But for the most part, piling onto the answers of your colleagues simply bores your hosts and extends the meeting unnecessarily. Sin #3 is for one of your colleagues to disagree with another. If your colleague says the sky is pink, then the sky is pink. If you feel compelled to say that it is actually blue with a pink hue, then you are simply demonstrating to your host that you are not team players and do not know how to collaborate effectively; in other words, you don’t play nicely together. This is a tremendous turn-off to your hosts.

Show respect to your hosts and to each other. Be careful that 90% of your eye contact does not go to the power person among your hosts: pay attention to the other individuals they brought into the meeting with them as well. That subordinate that you are tempted to ignore may have a lot more influence over decisions than you think. In terms of your own team, your senior people need to avoid behaving in a patronizing way toward more junior people. Back in the office, one of you may be a senior partner and another a junior associate but in the meeting, the senior partner should treat the junior associate like the find of the century who is brilliant, ahead of the times, gifted beyond description, and a great asset not only to the firm but to its clients. (I know this sounds over the top, but you get the idea.)

The close (or “What’s next?”): You should know before the meeting begins how you want to end it. In some cases, it may be absurd to expect a buying decision at the end of that first meeting. You may have thought through the first incremental step that you might want permission to take – even if that first step is still without fee, but rather includes further analysis of the needs of the prospective client. One member of your team should be prepared to ask for a decision on that incremental step. “So, based on what you’ve heard, would you be comfortable with our proceeding to do that preliminary analysis that we described?” This question should be followed by silence by all the members of your team; the next person who speaks should be one of your hosts. You may not get a “Yes,” and you may have to moderate your expectations, but under no circumstances should you refrain from giving the client a chance to say “Yes.”

The team should rehearse. The presentation will not be short and precise if it is not well-crafted and rehearsed. It should sound extemporaneous, but should be built on a foundation of solid preparation. In addition, your group should brainstorm the kind of resistance that might occur in the meeting. Are you prepared to respond to such statements as “We already have a firm helping us in that area,” or “We are not ready to make a decision this year because we will not find a place in the budget until next year,” or “We know your firm but don’t think of it in the context of a reputation for this particular area.” None of these questions are insurmountable, but they can be devastating if they are not anticipated. Difficult questions tend to get long rambling answers as your colleague thinks on his or her feet. It is better to have anticipated the question and have a more precise and focused answer at the ready.

Every meeting is a one-off. Prepare for it accordingly. This does not mean that you need to invest an enormous amount of preparation time, but it does mean focusing on the specific prospective client. You should be able to demonstrate that you’ve done your homework, and that you have a solid reason for wanting to serve the people with whom you are meeting.