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Call us for a chat on +44 (0)20 7836 3678 or email Amanda Francis


Top 10 tips on asking effective questions in new business meetings

Some of you may already know this but alongside my Alchemis responsibilities as MD and co-owner, I also ran a training company called Sorceris. One of our specialist areas was sales training and we covered topics such as:

  • cold calling
  • running a productive first meeting
  • presentation skills
  • pitch coaching

I have continued my love for training into the Alchemis core offer, as we offer meetings coaching as part of our package; we’re called a new business agency and that means we help our clients however we can to achieve their business growth objectives, which includes helping them maximise every opportunity we set up for them.

The first stage in this process is cold calling and that’s what we do at Alchemis. This is best left to the experts, as developing a really tight proposition that works on the phone is a skill in itself, as is being motivated and confident enough to pick up the phone, call between 80-100 prospects every day in order to generate meaningful conversations with 8-10 of them.

The second stage is the initial cold meeting which is the first real chance for our clients to start building a relationship with that prospect. In this climate, prospects don’t have the time to meet prospective agency partners for no reason, 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…’

Your job in the first meeting is to raise the level from implied to explicit and walk out of the meeting knowing that you’ve done everything you can to try and realise that opportunity. Ideally, you will leave that first meeting with a second meeting in the diary – or at the very least, an agreement on how often, how and when you’re going to keep in touch with the prospect. On this note, we often recommend that Alchemis is better placed than our clients to nurture these slow burn opportunities, as frankly we are often better at creating reasons to keep in touch and have the time to do so!

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 irrelevant and meaningless work.

I often find during the coaching sessions 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?

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

1. One of the golden rules is 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 what 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.

For more information on how we help our clients secure business, do get in touch.

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