You can help ensure better meeting results by setting guidelines for participants

You can help ensure better meeting results by setting guidelines for participants

By Marcia Gauger, for SBT

Question:
My sales calls involve fact-finding and presenting information to groups and committees of about five or six people. After significant preparation for my last two calls, only half of the participants showed up. It’s not unusual for participants to come and go during my meetings, which is rather disruptive. I find this happening more frequently both with outside and internal customers. Any suggestions?

Answer:
On the first day of school, my daughter brought home a list of class rules that I needed to sign. Although I initially laughed at some of them, on reflection most of the rules seemed applicable to business meeting situations as well.
The notion of having rules for meetings may seem somewhat controlling, yet if positioned correctly could alleviate some of your problems. Most likely, you will have more latitude to suggest rules (let’s call them guidelines) with internal customers. However, positioning expectations with external customers may be beneficial as well.
Here are some suggestions:

Don’t go in cold – Find out who will be in attendance and why they will be there. Ask questions such as, "What is Mary’s role in this project?" "How does the project affect her?" "What input will Mary have in the end decision?"
Adults don’t attend meetings just because they have free time. You need to find out what’s in it for each person individually. Then, tailor your presentation to meet the needs of everyone in the group.

Suggest possible attendees – Don’t rely on your customers to dictate who will be in your meetings. If there is a particular person or role that would help you support your project, suggest that person be invited.

Send "pre-work" – Knowing each attendee’s personal gains and potential risks in attending the meeting, you can use the information to position interest.
Send each participant a pre-meeting agenda with a check sheet of items you would like them to bring, think about or discuss. Make sure you don’t make this a difficult task or you may end up with no attendees.
Be sure to pique interest for each individual by addressing what’s in it for each of them.
For instance, you may make an up-front statement in your communication like, "On Sept. 27 we will be meeting to discuss whether a new computer system would make accounting simpler for your department. To expedite time for all attendees and to make sure we address your individual interests, please be prepared to discuss the following …."

Set expectations before, during and after – Send an agenda to participants with specific timeframes attached including start and finish times.
Consider sending a memo with the agenda stating that everyone’s full participation is critical and request feedback if an attendee is not able to commit to the entire time.
If you know that someone has to leave early, ask that his or her concerns be addressed before they dismiss themselves. Or, ask participants to write one concern or question that they have regarding the meeting on an index card. Use the cards as you progress through the meeting and for follow-up.
At the conclusion, type a follow-up memo with the questions and answers listed. When you start the meeting, reiterate the start and finish times and ask for a commitment from everyone in attendance.

Use a "parking lot" – Attendees can drift during meetings if a participant gets sidetracked on irrelevant issues.
A parking lot is simply a place where you write down topics to be addressed later. This is a terrific way to keep the pace of the meeting going in the direction you need it to.

Meeting norms
If you schedule regular meetings with customers, you may consider establishing norms, which are simply guiding principles. It is best for the group to establish these rather than dictate them. Here are some examples of meeting norms:
–Everyone in attendance must participate by sharing at least one new idea that will benefit the discussion.
— No idea is a dumb one. Throw everything on the table for consideration.
— Be open-minded about information and toward other participants.
— Respect confidentiality; what’s said here stays here.
— Begin session and return from breaks on time.
— Participate and share in group discussions.
— Be prepared to work and have some fun.
— Ask questions and speak freely.
— One person speaks at a time.
— Stripes off at the door.
— No personal criticism.

Marcia Gauger
is the president of Impact Sales, a performance improvement and training company with offices in Wisconsin, Florida and Arkansas. You can contact her at 262-642-9610 or marciag@makinganimpact.com. Her column appears in every other issue of SBT.

Sept. 19, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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