Friday, July 28, 2006

Meetings 101

Tuesday I was sucked into a Very Important Meeting at the last minute.

Four of us were granted 30 minutes with a Big Cheese at our largest business partner, which happens to be one of the biggest, nastiest technology companies in the world.

I’m usually pretty flexible when it comes to these things, but it was irritating for several reasons:

Irritation #1: The meeting was scheduled for 10:30; I heard about it at 9:45.

Irritation #2: My three co-workers had a pre-meeting the day before to prepare. I wasn’t invited.

Irritation #3: The meeting didn’t go as well as it could have if I’d been involved earlier.
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I’m not good at much beyond mowing the lawn, but I know how to run an effective meeting.

I’ve mentioned this before. You attend enough bad ones and you become an expert on what it takes to make a meeting work for everyone involved.

Sadly, the people who truly suck at managing meetings are the ones who end up running them most of the time. They’ve been doing it the same way since God invented meetings (“Adam, meet Eve. Stick to the agenda, stop looking at her tits, and try not to bore her to death, okay?”) and they’re not about to change.

Here’s the old way of handling the Very Important Meeting: A sales rep or some other Mid-Level Executive Hoo-Ha stays up ‘til 1 a.m. the night before, building a presentation of no less than 50 slides summarizing what your company does.

This presentation includes a detailed description of every technology, department, company, industry, and executive with which/whom you’ve ever worked. It also includes a list of every employee of note at your organization, including Betty the receptionist who is otherwise un-noteworthy except for her huge breasts (“Oh, that’s Betty. How did that photo get in here? Hee-hee. You’ll meet her at the golf outing; she’s an expert ball-washer.”)

The presentation also features a one-page graphic of how your company is structured. Pyramids and buildings with columns were popular in the 90’s. Since then, there’s been a shift to flowing, swirly diagrams that are more visually appealing yet still confusing and uninteresting to anyone other than the CEO who demanded the graphic in the first place.

Exactly one hour before the meeting, the sales rep hogs the color printer making 50 copies of handouts before realizing there’s a typo on every other page. Thankfully, the font is so small that no one can read it anyway.

The rep frantically asks Betty, Keeper of the Huge Breasts, to find out exactly where he’s going and with whom he’s meeting because up to this point he hasn’t given it one thought.

At the Very Important Meeting, the rep proceeds to talk for 60 minutes straight without taking a breath – let alone a question – while heads nod, eyes glaze over and the potted plant wilts sadly in the corner.

He blathers on about your company, occasionally injecting what he believes is witty banter with the glassy-eyed folks in the room who remain un-fooled by this fake attempt at familiarity.

Your rep talks about everything in hopes that something, anything will resonate with the decision-makers in the room. At the end of the meeting, which blew through the 1-hour time limit and never followed the carefully prepared agenda, your brilliant and breathless sales rep says: “So, what do you think?”
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You’ve sat in on these meetings. Nobody likes being sold to. Nobody wants to listen to someone yap for more than an hour; we did our time and paid our dues with that in college, thank you very much.

So here’s how to become a master at the art of the Very Important Meeting:

Pre-meeting:

1) Write down a short list of goals you’d like to accomplish.
2) Research the company and executives with whom you will be meeting; Hoovers and OneSource are great resources for this. If your company doesn’t have a subscription to these on-line research tools, find someone who does and borrow it.
3) Develop a long list of questions to ask. What are their goals? What challenges them? What are they held accountable for at the end of the day? Think of possible answers and develop follow up questions as well.
4) Memorize highlights from case studies on the value/ROI you’ve delivered to existing clients in your prospect’s industry.
5) Also, now is a good time to figure out who else from your company should attend. Share your research, brief them on their role, describe the value you expect them to provide, and clearly explain how you plan on running the meeting.
6) Lastly, figure out if you have any mutual acquaintances through your well-developed network. Don’t use who you know as an ice-breaker (it’s too obvious) but as the icing on the cake if the meeting goes well.

I know what you’re thinking: This is an ass-load of work, Heather.

Only if you’ve never done it.

Once you develop a good list of questions, you can re-use it and tweak them for specific prospects along the way. The research is probably the most work, but it can take less than 10 minutes if you know what you’re looking for and have the right tools.

What about preparing leave behinds like sell-sheets and case studies? For that first meeting, don’t leave ‘em with anything but your business card and a smile. It’s a great excuse to send them something post-meeting to keep the dialog rolling and your company foremost in their mind.

During the meeting: Take two minutes to introduce yourself and your firm. If you can’t do it in less time than that, smack yourself in the head repeatedly and practice until you can.

For the next 45 minutes, ask all of your questions. The VIP decision-maker should be doing most of the talking, which is great, because it makes them feel as important as they undoubtedly are.

I’ll say it again in case you weren’t listening: Your prospect should be doing most of the talking. You’re not grilling him – it’s supposed to be an easy, enlightening conversation in which your prospect has the starring role. And for Pete’s sake, don’t be afraid of silence; give ‘em time to think about their answers so that you’ll get better information.

Besides keeping you from talking too much, asking a lot of questions:

1) Makes the other person feel important
2) Helps you find out things you didn’t know about their role, their business and their corporate culture – stuff you’d never find in any on-line research tool or industry rag
3) Shows that you’re genuinely interested in what they have to say and not just trying to sell them something they might not need
4) Gets you out of the typical inward facing mentality and forces you to think about the value you might bring to your prospect from their perspective.

If you’ve done your homework, listened closely and taken good notes, you should be able to spend the last 10 minutes of the meeting explaining how your product or service could help them overcome their challenges and meet their goals while saving time, money, or both. Confidently convey that you understand their unique business challenges better than most by offering valuable insights on how their industry peers are leveraging your product/service to create competitive advantages and grow their business.

It’s critical to take cues from the person you’re meeting with: If he’s actively engaged and yapping to the point of over-sharing, just roll with it, my friend. You win.

But if your prospect is glancing at his watch – or contemplating slashing his wrists – take the hint and cut the meeting short.

Wrap up with next steps, thank them for their time, and burst out of the room with a spring in your step and a song in your heart.

Then go home, scratch your dog, have a scotch, and screw your wife, because you’ve earned it. You’re a Master at the Art of the Very Important Meeting.
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I was the only one from our team who asked a question.

It was near the end of the Very Important Meeting, which went on for nearly 90 minutes – way over our allotted time.

“How do we compare to other alliance partners in terms of our approach to the market? Is there anything we should be doing differently?”

I thought the Big Cheese was gonna leap over the table and hug me, he was so happy at the prospect of finally being allowed to speak.

It was disappointing that we didn’t get to hear about his goals and challenges and how we might be able to help him. It was frustrating, having left the impression that we really don’t care much about what he has to say.

And I told my co-workers exactly that, in between bites of sweet and sour chicken at our post-meeting lunch.
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I am listening to: Frou Frou – Holding Out for a Hero (Shrek 2 soundtrack)
I am reading: Salon.com
And I am: Bitchy

2 comments:

the dilf said...

If this is how your firm runs meetings, I doubt it will have many "Big, Nasty" clients for much longer. If this "moron" who ran the meeting doesnt change his ways (have you told him?) it may be time to jump ship. Cuz, if he's one of the big wigs...RUN!...it will only get worse.

Hedy said...

I'm with ya, Dilf. It's a big concern for me.