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Knowing what questions to ask

Frequently I have been in client meetings set up by a colleague, occasionally by myself too, where there is no clear agenda or objective.

It is set up more in the nature of ‘since you are visiting you should meet the client’ or ‘ there’s a VIP client in town you should meet’. (I am guilty of doing that to atleast one of my bosses. If you know who you are, apologies. If not..well all’s well then right? :-P)

This post has some advice to ensure meetings are effective by mentioning 8 rules.

Here they are (The rules are the original author’s. Commentary is mine). To read the original article click here.

  • Rule #1: Never meet without a plan. Having an agenda is the starting point. Beyond this, look at other issues you’d like to cover and ensure that you have the right people with you. Having a Creative Director to address the issue of creative briefs for example. Or a Regional President to unearth relationship issues are examples. This is a two way process. Look at what you want to accomplish and ensure you have the right people. When you know who is coming for the meeting identify what role each will play at the meeting. And agree on how you’d judge the meeting was a success. If you need decisions on some points, send the agenda earlier so that clients have a chance to prepare.
  • Rule #2: Never rehearse your questions. Nothing is more annoying than reading questions from a list. How often have we read interviews with people in a magazine and found that the Qs don’t flow from the previous answers. Not only does it read disjointed it also leaves opportunities for further questions on the table. So rather than writing your questions have key points you want to cover with you. The agenda is a good starting point.
  • Rule #3: Never ask stupid questions. Some people say “there are no stupid questions.”  There are plenty of stupid Qs. I hear them everyday. They usually are a reflection of lack of preparatory work. Ideally the group going for a meeting should spend a few minutes before going off to cover off key points to ensure no surprises and defining people’s roles. If it is a new business meeting, ensure adequate research is done so that not only do you not ask a silly Q, you also have a nugget of information that helps create the impression of someone who is keen about the business. Google is an antidote to stupidity.
  • Rule #4: Never give the third degree. This usually happens when people have a list of Qs to ask and need to go through it. Primary occasion is when getting a new brief. The fear that if all the boxes don’t have answers and getting flack back in the office leads to this approach. On a related matter, when building a database use a sequence of touch points to build profile. There is no need to ask all 42 Qs at the first contact.
  • Rule #5: Never talk more than you listen. Enough has been said about this subject so won’t spend time on this. I am still continually surprised by how often this rule gets broken. Even as late as yesterday!! I guess the fear of “be silent and be thought stupid” is a driving factor?
  • Rule #6: Never ask leading questions. Not sure if this is relevant as all meetings have an objective and we need to get the client, or the other party, to yes. So asking questions that get them to the desired goal should be welcome. Even if leading questions. As long as they don’t lead you up a blind alley of course.
  • Rule #7. Always invite customers to speak their mind. So true. Often meetings get straight into the agenda, or the purpose of the meeting. If the client/customer has something on her mind she is not paying attention to what you have to say. And the need to say what’s on her mind increases her frustration. This could also be wanting to share good news like her promotion. Before getting into meeting specifics is a great time to talk about things ‘off the agenda’. These usually tend to be of the semi-official variety. And can be very useful as business opportunities or just for relationship building.
  • Rule #8: Always ask open-ended questions. The more one can engage the client in a meaningful conversation the more we understand their business and their issues. So questions that just need Yes/No answers make for an exceedingly dull meeting and are conversation killers. While one still needs to ensure that the objective of the meeting is achieved within the time available, open ended questions are great to give clients the opportunity to talk about ‘the way I see it..’

So those were the 8 (7 by my reckoning) rules with my adaptation for the advertising business, though relevant for any PSF really.

Happy to hear your thoughts.

  1. Sreenesh
    October 1, 2009 at 5:36 am

    Hi Harish- You are bang on. But you know Indians and how we all love to talk. I’ve always borne the brunt of asking open-ended questions. And attempts to be a keen listener and ask questions that flow with the conversation have back-fired with the meeting time running out without all points being covered!! Have been in important meetings heavily attended by clients and seen how a bunch of loose canons hijack the meeting.

    Maybe there is a different set of guidelines in India. What are your thoughts? Did you face similar issues while in India?

    October 2, 2009 at 1:21 am

    Hi Sreenesh. I don’t think it is a matter of culture. There will always be talkative ones. I suggest rule #1. Never meet without a plan. Nesure everyone coming along has something to do. IF everyone just shows up then people come with different agendas/expectations and meeting goes off on a tangent.

  3. Sreenesh
    October 5, 2009 at 4:16 am

    Hi Harish- Thanks for that.

  4. Anand Kumar B
    October 6, 2009 at 1:20 am

    Thanks for the note Harish. Maybe.. i should publish the well compiled list to my team. Simple and overlooked but powerful string of rules

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