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10 tips on asking effective questions in new business meetings

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At any agency, there is likely to come a time when the staff responsible for new business attend a "cold" meeting with a prospective client. This may be following the cold calling process and it may not be the same person that has made the initial approach that will actually attend the first meeting with the prospect. However, it is the first real chance to start building a relationship with that prospect. In this climate, prospects don't often have time to meet prospective agency partners for no reason. The caller that has arranged the meeting in the first place should have qualified some key points so there will always be a reason to meet.

This need will range from the explicit:

'I have a brief and these guys might be able to help me’

to the implied

'I’m not sure I'm getting everything I need from my current agency, these guys might be able to add something new...'

The new business person’s job in the first meeting is to raise the level from implied to explicit and walk out of there knowing that you've done everything you can to try and realise that opportunity. Ideally, they will leave that first meeting with a second meeting in the diary – or at the very least, an agreement on how, when and how often you’re going to keep in touch with them.

The first meeting must therefore focus on finding out as much as you can about the prospect’s challenges and priorities in order to understand how you can potentially help them. It is NOT an opportunity for you to show them an endless stream of potentially irrelevant and meaningless work.

I often find during the coaching sessions I run with our clients that asking the right questions is not something they prepare for first meetings, whereas it is possibly one of the most critical parts of the meeting – how else can you find out what’s keeping them awake at night if you don’t ask?

So, to help you develop a series of questions, here are my top tips:

1. One of the golden rules in selling is that the more you give, the more you’ll get back. So……part of your preparation should include researching the prospect’s market and their competition so that you can develop an opinion, observation or insight into their situation.

There are three benefits to this approach:

a. It shows that you’ve put in the groundwork and are therefore are keen to work with them

b. It demonstrates empathy with their issues

c. It helps to create a ‘bridge’ from you setting the scene at the start of the meeting into the main part of the meeting - where you need to identify the real reasons behind them agreeing to meet you

2. Do NOT ask the prospect ‘situational’ questions that you could have researched and found out before the meeting; examples of situational questions are:

a. So what do you do?

b. Who is your current design/digital/PR agency?

These questions are boring to your prospect and show that you haven’t done your research, which in turn indicates that you’re not prepared to put the extra effort in to work with them

3. Remember the basic rule of asking open questions in order to elicit a response; open questions begin with:

a. Why

b. Who

c. When

d. Where

e. What

f. How

4. Be careful of WHY questions as they can come across as challenging, as in:

‘Why did you choose your incumbent agency?’

Always try to qualify/soften these questions with a reason for asking, as in:

‘It would be really useful for me to understand the main reasons you chose to work with your incumbent agency so that I can show you how we meet those criteria’

Other ways of softening a challenging or sensitive question (such as those about budgets) include:

a. Prefacing the question with phrases like May I ask…? or Would you mind me asking…..?

b. Labelling the question - this announces your intention to ask a question and the benefit to the prospect of answering it. An example could be ‘I’d really like to know what the likely budget for this project is so I can ensure I come up with a solution that works within your constraints’

5. There is always room for closed questions too in a meeting; they begin with a verb (Are you, did you, can you, is it….) and can be used to:

a. Collect specific information

b. Gain confirmation

c. Bring the conversation back to the relevant subject

d. To check if you have understood or interpreted correctly

e. To close down overly talkative people

6. Prepare the information you need from a first meeting to help you prepare the questions you therefore need to ask. For example, you need to know:

a. Their priorities for the coming 3/6/12 months

b. Their challenges

c. Their budgets

d. Relationships with incumbent agencies

e. The buying process and decision making chain

f. Likely projects that they can see you being able to help them with

7. Do NOT just fire a series of seemingly unrelated questions at the prospects – they will begin to feel like you’re interrogating them. Ensure that your questions have a pattern and a theme and always qualify them beforehand – this requires preparation, but always be prepared for the meeting to go in a completely different direction as well!

8. Always probe a bit further - once you’ve asked a question, follow it up with another one. This has several advantages:

a. It helps to ensure that you’ve understood their initial answer

b. It shows you’ve listened, are interested and want to know more

c. It encourages your prospect to open up more

d. It allows you to progress the line of questioning towards your meeting objective

9. Other techniques/tips include:

a. Linking – this allows you to link back to something mentioned earlier in the meeting and allows you to ask further questions about this matter, which may not have been appropriate or relevant to ask at that time

b. Silence – a great technique when used properly; it should be used sparingly and is used to encourage your prospect to say more

c. Hypothetical – again, a really effective technique, which asks the prospects to think about a future working relationship with you and how that might look like

10. Finally, always ask questions which highlight your proposition or proposed solution and when you’ve asked a question, BE QUIET and let them answer it!

Obviously, these tips only touch the surface of the complexity and nuances of first meetings – you have to appeal to the prospect’s rational need of wanting to know more about your agency, clients and case studies as well as being able to tap into their emotional buying motives.

This article first appeared on the Alchemis website

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