Any kind of sale or procurement process almost always involves a phase of client engagement, such as delivering presentations, participating in workshops or being interviewed (sometimes one-on-one, sometimes as a team). This is an area that is very uncomfortable for many of the team members we work with – not that they would openly admit it – and more importantly, many of the team members we work with are terrible at it.
I don’t say this to be critical though. In fact, it is completely expected that they would be uncomfortable and inexperienced engaging with clients or stakeholders. After all, most of the team members we work with are the best of the best in their technical fields, such as engineering, project management, finance, commercial, manufacturing etc… not in client-facing fields such as sales, business development, account management or communications.
If I asked most of them to tell me how many days they had spent in their career in some form of training or coaching in sales, business development, account management or communications, or in related sub-fields such as rapport building, questioning techniques, active listening or presenting, it would probably be zero.
I had an epiphany about this recently when I attended a stakeholder meeting with one of my client team members. I was a ring-in to the meeting and therefore hadn’t done any work coaching or preparing with my colleague. It just didn’t occur to me that I needed to because the meeting was quite straight forward and my colleague had it under control. Or so I thought.
When we entered the room, my colleague had a minor personality change (presumably from nervousness) and started talking a mile a minute at the stakeholder. I was shocked at the change in behaviour from his normal calm, jovial persona in to this super-assertive chatterbox. Minutes went by with my colleague talking non-stop. Finally, when my colleague took a breath, the stakeholder said that he had some concerns, but halfway through his sentence my colleague cut over the top and started talking at him that there was nothing to be concerned about and repeated most of his first monologue.
Now, this colleague of mine is highly skilled – one of the best in his field – and an all-round fantastic person. He is great in leading a team, working with his colleagues, presenting to large internal audiences, participating in meetings, brainstorming innovations and new approaches etc, but as I sat there, I realised that he had probably never had to engage with clients or stakeholders before, or at least not as a regular part of his current or previous roles, and probably never as something he had been trained or coached to do. And as I sat there, I also realised that most of the team members who are engaging with clients and stakeholders in tenders are probably in the same situation.
So, here are my top tips for engaging with clients and stakeholders:
1. Focus on engaging and interacting.
As much as you can, try to conduct the meeting as an engaging and interactive session. The greatest value will be gained from a meeting where you ask questions of the client or stakeholder, listen to their answers, probe for further detail and then respond appropriately to provide a tailored response to their comments. Most people find two-way conversations to be the most enjoyable and interesting conversations (rather than boring monologues), plus the client or stakeholder almost always wants to feel that you understand what they need or are concerned about or want to achieve. If they don’t get to talk, they typically feel worried and frustrated.
The key to conducting an engaging and interactive meeting is to ask questions. Depending on the situation, I like to ask a range of questions such as:
- What is being done really well by their current provider / in other jurisdictions?
- What has been done well so far in servicing their needs?
- What needs to be done better?
- What would they like to see improve?
- What do they think are the greatest risks, challenges or concerns?
- What do they think that you or your team will do well?
- What do they think that you or your team might need to ramp up or change their approach to?
- What does success look like?
- What would be their worst nightmare?
You’ll need to modify the way you ask these questions depending on the atmosphere of the meeting and the personalities of the clients or stakeholders, but you should be able to see that the answers would provide some fascinating insights into the client’s or stakeholder’s expectations.
A key skill in client or stakeholder engagements is to listen. Have you ever heard the saying ‘No-one every learnt anything from talking?’. It’s 100% true. Listening is a ridiculously underrated skill, and unfortunately very few people are good at it. When you ask a question, wait patiently for the client or stakeholder to answer. Give them time to find their words and to express what they want to communicate. Avoid the temptation to finish their sentences or assume you know which direction they are going in. Not only is interrupting or cutting across downright rude, but there is every chance that you are wrong in your assumption and then you miss the opportunity to hear what the client or stakeholder is really thinking. Show respect and listen. And in fact, expert communicators and negotiators go one step further and use silence as a tool to get even more information. The client or stakeholder might be in the mood to share all sorts of information or they might feel the need to fill the silence.
You may also have heard of active listening, which is where you paraphrase the key points back to the client or stakeholder. There are two main benefits to active listening: it ensures you correctly interpret and understand what the client or stakeholder is saying, and it gives the client confidence in you because it proves to them that you understand them.
Once you’ve listened, you need to probe for further information wherever you can. Ask further questions like:
- That’s interesting… tell me more about that…
- I didn’t realise that was so important to you… could you explain further?
- How often does that happen? or How frequently would you like that to be done?
- Comparing abc to xyz, which one is more important to you?
- If we were to do 123, would that be something you would be interested in?
2. Speak and present confidently.
Most people get nervous in these kind of interactions, which is completely normal, but the most engaging and impressive presenters are confident. Perhaps that’s easier said than done, but here are some tips for how you can at least appear confident:
- Speak clearly and loudly (but not too loudly – you aren’t trying to bludgeon them with your opinions)
- Look directly in the eyes of your clients or stakeholders
- Use simple and direct language, and limit the jargon
- Use talking points rather than a script, and speak from your experience not your notes
- Try to relax – after all, you’re an expert and you have information that your client or stakeholder wants to hear
3. Support your presentation with appropriate materials.
We’ve all heard the saying ‘death by PowerPoint’ which is truly a gruesome way to go. Your interaction with the client or stakeholder will be most effective if you focus on engaging in a two-way dialogue. To this end, the most important parts of the interaction are what you say, how you say it and how you invite feedback and comment. Tools such as slides, handouts or other materials should support your presentation, not be your presentation.
Slides are great to add visual effect to what you are saying and keep the audience tuned in to your presentation, but avoid trying to put everything in to the slides. The most effective presentations have complementary content on the screen, not a repetition of what you are saying.
Unless you have fantastic skills for creating next-level slides, follow these basic rules of thumb for slides:
- No more than 3 lines per slide and no more than 6 words per line
- Use a font size large enough to read easily from the back of the room – try 30 point
- Avoid overly complex diagrams or charts as they can’t be read
- Use simple backgrounds
- Use consistent layouts
- Limit animation effects
- Use consistent slide transitions.
Other terrific tools to use include handouts, posters or working sheets with information such as diagrams, maps, site plans, artists’ impressions, architectural drawings, schematics, colour palettes etc, and physical models that the audience can interact with. Watch their eyes light up if they have something tactile to engage with!
I’m also a big fan of old school whiteboards… when you can sketch meaningful diagrams on a whiteboard it communicates expertise, professionalism and confidence in the subject matter. I frequently draw models or diagrams that show the approach we take, milestones programs, lists and so forth. Working on a whiteboard creates a collaborative and engaging environment, and allows you to modify your approach based on the feedback from the audience.
4. Rehearse. Rehearse. Rehearse.
Most of the teams we work with underestimate rehearsals in three ways:
- How much they need to rehearse
- What kinds of details that need to rehearse and
- Under what conditions they need to rehearse.
Rehearsing is like training for an event – the more you practice, the better you will perform. Taking this concept further, you need to ensure we practice all of the elements of the presentation and in a range of conditions.
As an analogy, in self-defence and Krav Maga training, we aim to replicate as many different conditions as possible in our training (rehearsal) so that we can prepare ourselves to perform under any circumstance we might be presented with. For example, if we train in a brightly-lit gym environment, wearing our sports shoes and training clothes, and working on padded tatami floors, we’ll stand a good chance of being able to put those skills in to practice if we are ever confronted in our gym while training. But if we need to ‘perform’ on the street or a dark alley, in our work clothes while carrying a satchel of documents… we have a high likelihood of faltering. That’s why in Krav Maga training we frequently train outdoors, in car parks, with the lights flickering, with noise, in normal clothes etc so that we can prepare for more situations that we might face. The same is true for our rehearsals. If you rehearse in a small meeting room in the office, sitting around a small table, tapping away on your slideshow yourself, you’ll hopefully be good at delivering a presentation in that format. But if you need to present in an auditorium, or conduct an interactive session with 40 people, or work with a person who is running the slideshow for you, you need to practice that style of presentation.
And don’t forget to the rehearse all the elements of your interaction. You need to smoothly and confidently be able to:
- Enter the room and introduce yourself (What will you say? Will you shake everyone’s hand? Will you hand out a business card?)
- Take your place (Where will you sit? Will you sit straight away?)
- Introduce yourself when you stand to speak (Will you repeat your name and role? Will you give a short bio? Will you say why this project is important to you?)
- Segue to the next speaker (Will you introduce them? Will you say what they will speak about? Will you say something about when you have worked together before?)
- Show cohesion between you and your team members (Will you nod while they speak? Will you interject to add to your colleague’s comments? Will you share war stories?).
These aspects sound silly and can be awkward to rehearse, but believe me, when you do it well in front of the client it looks very professional.
5. Pitfalls to avoid.
If you want to create a good interaction with your client or stakeholder, there are some pitfalls to avoid. Some of these are basic etiquette but it is surprising how often we see these behaviours.
- Don’t interrupt or talk over the top of the client, stakeholder or your own team members – it is just plain rude and you may miss out on important information for the sake of hearing your own voice.
- Avoid trying to prove that you are the smartest person in the room – no one likes a smart arse and it can really backfire.
- Don’t start late or go over time – show that you respect your client’s and stakeholder’s time.
- Never disagree with your colleagues in front of the client or stakeholder – disagreeing shows disharmony and undermines the team. Instead, if you have to ‘correct’ something that has been said, say something like “yes, we can take Dave’s approach and we can also try this other approach” or “and another idea would be to do xyz” or “it will also work to do this other idea instead and in fact that option might be even better, considering xyz…”. You can build on your colleague’s comment and still get your point across without embarrassing your colleague.
For help in developing your engagement skills so that you interact more effectively with your clients and stakeholders, call us on 07 3211 4299 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.