Do your international sales teams really optimise their customer meetings? Ask yourself if your teams are really using their time in the best way possible by optimising meetings that they have with clients. As we approach the end of the pandemic, international sales teams are going back to in-person meetings, so that means you have to be sure that they’re really using their time in the best way possible.
I’m not talking about sales methods here (although those are obviously also important) but more about how to organise and run effective meetings.
Why is this important?
An international sales team is an important asset, but also an expensive one, so you need to ensure that you are using their energy wisely. It’s also the reason behind my self-care to stay healthy on business trips post: you need to use energy effectively to do the job well for the long term.
How can you make the most of your sales teams time? Time spent in the field is a critically important for the success of your teams and it’s also the major driver of the costs. In international business, it isn’t cheap to visit partners which is why the question of how to optimise meetings is so important, even more so than in the domestic market.
Do you have a clear plan about how often your team should visit each client, based on your internal segmentation? Do you have clear structures in place to determine what needs to be discussed in each meeting? Do you have clear guidelines about which other key functions should visit the markets and when? eg Supply Chain Manager
There are three key stages to any customer meeting:
- the meeting itself
- the follow-up
My recommendation would be to standardise the structure below across your team for maximum efficiency – the tools that you may use to manage that are a secondary consideration.
The key to any meeting is in the preparation
1. Get the Basics Right
You need to have a clear agreement with the client about the time and the location where the meeting will take place. It’s a simple point but on a longer tour the planning can get mind-spinningly complex.
If you plan to visit say 5 customers in different locations over a week, you need to think carefully about the logistics of fitting that all in, especially now where there are not so many flight options available. If you need to make any of those visits outside of major cities in the country then it can get even more complicated.
Make sure you make these plans with enough time to gather the necessary information and to do the preparation in advance of the meeting. However, not all countries like to fix their calendar so far ahead of time so you may find people cancelling last minute, or trying to change where you should meet. That isn’t an issue in Cyprus, but makes quite a difference in India or Brazil.
2. What do you want to achieve?
What is the aim of the meeting?
Without a clear target then it’s not possible to run a structured meeting. That target can be a range of things:
- to receive an order
- to solve the problem
- to agree upon a marketing campaign
- to plan the budgets for the next quarter
With international trade, meetings are often a quarterly round up of news on both sides (or whatever your visit rhythm is) so probably include a mix of regular discussion points and topics that came up since your last meeting.
3. Review the last meeting
Review the notes and the meeting minutes from the last meeting with that particular client. Ask yourself:
- did I complete all of my to do’s that we agreed in the last meeting?
- did I receive everything I needed from the customer after our previous meeting? If not then I need to follow up with those in good time before the next meeting should take place
- have my colleagues completed all of their tasks?
- Which questions are still open and need to be carried forward into your upcoming meeting?
4. Systematise as much as possible
Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. If you’re making regular customer visits to the same clients, then it pays to prepare a standard list of discussion points and to also prepare a template in which to make notes with those clients. You might have a standard list for ALL your customers, or perhaps just for individual regions or clients. However, there are probably a lot of topics that you discuss at each visit with your clients such as
- sales development in the last quarter or since your last visit
- marketing activities
- any problems in the deliveries
- plans for the coming period
- any support which is needed
- new products that you were looking to present
Send the list with the discussion points to your partner around a week before the meeting.
5. Really prepare what you want to discuss
Prepare all of the topics that you want to discuss with the client in advance. Analyse the statistics available, note any open questions from the last meeting and make sure you know your material inside out. Those questions can be the standard ones that you discuss at every meeting as well as anything specific which has come up in the last period. Make sure that you also ask for any questions or discussion points that your client may have so that you can be adequately prepared to discuss those with him.
Set clear expectations to your partners about how you expect them to also prepare for the meeting. The better the groundwork is laid, the more you can optimise your actual meeting time, and the more effective they will be. This may be a process as some partners may resist the idea of preparing a presentation or certain kinds of report, but you need to educate them that this is an integral part of your cooperation.
6. PPT or no slides?
Do you need to prepare a presentation for your client meeting? I don’t want to talk about how to prepare presentations here or about the topic of rhetoric and speaking in public as that is a topic for multiple seminars. If a presentation is needed, make sure that you prepare it well in advance tailored to your audience and make sure that your presentation is not overloaded with statistics and numbers.
Think about whether the presentation should be a reference document eg with lots of new products or marketing tools as well as the recent sales development, or if it has a more motivational character.
During the meeting itself
If you have great preparation, then the meeting itself should be somewhat easier.
7. Make sure you take charge of the meeting
So what do I mean by that? After the initial small talk, make an introduction about what is the aim of the meeting and give a brief overview of the most important points that you wish to cover or decide by the end. You should be the one as far as possible to seize the initiative (obviously taking courtesy to your host into account). It’s important that you understand the psychology and etiquette about seating in the country you are visiting as this can vary.
Propose a timing plan, if your partner hasn’t sent one in advance, and make sure you discuss the points from your agenda which are most important for you early on. By important for you I mean the points that you either have to deliver to your boss or that you have to deliver to your internal customers. You don’t want to get sidetracked into long discussions on minor points only to find you need to run to the airport without talking about your priority topic.
Don’t leave the initiative at the beginning of the of a meeting always to your client as this can put you on the back foot at a disadvantage when it comes to negotiations. Take control of the discussion and guide it firmly but gently in the direction you want to go. The idea here is to optimise your meetings so it’s essential you have effective and compact discussions.
If it’s relevant, deliver your presentation. As I mentioned before you need to remember that if you have a presentation which is completely overloaded with statistics, it’ll just send people to sleep. Nobody can follow that for very long.
Of course you need to talk about sales developments & there are certain kinds of statistics you need to present as charts, but don’t overload the presentation with data. If your slides are too “busy” then they are hard to read, and they won’t be memorable.
It’s better to talk freely, to talk about anecdotes and to use images in order to make sure that the people who are listening will actually retain the information that you giving to them.
Tell stories, but tailor them to your audience’s experience & culture so that they will be understood (obviously you have to understand who you’re presenting to in order to be able to do this).
Make sure that you use terms and vocabulary that the meeting participants will understand.
9. Listen to what the customer has to say
Ideally, at least for larger customers, such as regional distributors, the customer should prepare a presentation with the main points from the agenda. This should be in a form that you can easily take away with you. That way you just have to make notes of the details, and you can use the presentation to either refer to afterwards or to pass on to other people within your company.
My recommendation would be to make sure you ask critical questions: don’t just take everything that you’re told at face value. If anything seems really strange or you think that it’s there is maybe a mistake in the figures be sure to ask about it in a way that gives the customer the opportunity to clarify it, but without pushing them into a corner. I know that sales people prefer to talk themselves but actually listening is more important than talking.
Be empathetic to language difficulties
You need to remember that in an international environment people are often very nervous about presenting. They often find it very difficult to present figures in a foreign language so keep a close eye on what you were told about the numbers. For example with the revenue numbers, especially if people are converting them in their head into your home currency, because this is something that they’re often not actually that good at. You can easily write down wrong information simply because there was a misunderstanding.
If you’re working in a Chinese speaking environment remember that in China there is a unit (wan) which is 10,000 and therefore often Chinese people when they speak English make mistakes with a zero (and having a zero too many or too few can make quite a difference to your figures).
10. Both Parties are representing their own interests
Remember, whatever is said during small talk, that in the meeting each party is representing their own interests at the end of the day. When you visit a customer, hopefully both of you are looking to gain the best result for your brand, however in the end your partner has to represent his own interest. Every customer has to do what is best for their own specific situation and these actions are not always the same thing as doing the best for the brand.
11. Taking notes
It’s really important that you should find your own system for taking notes. It’s been proven that taking notes by hand helps you to remember the content far better than if you type directly into laptop or tablet. At the end of the day though, whatever system you choose, it has to work for you. We’re talking about how to optimise meetings here so that you can be most effective and that means you need a method that works.
I don’t like to write a lot of detail. I have an own kind of shorthand and I tend to put lots of arrows to demonstrate causality and just note down some very key points. If I’m the first time with a particular customer then I will note down a lot more detail in a much longer form so that I have as much information as possible. I also like to make little 🙂 faces or 🙁 faces to show what is the mood of the meeting at different points at different stages in the discussion. This helps you to go back through your notes and analyse if your notes match the vibe the customer was giving off on a particular topic.
Remember you should be able to reconstruct the whole meeting from your notes if necessary. So it’s worth making sure your notes are detailed “enough” because especially when you’re on a longer trip & meeting with a lot of customers it can be hard afterwards to discern which details you have in your head actually belonged to which partner.
In international sales you also often have questions to clarify for other departments back in the office, so you need to be sure you’ve noted all the relevant details of topics you may not be personally so familiar with.
12. Be focused
Make sure that whatever happens, you finish discussing one topic before you begin to talk about the next one. That might sound obvious but is quite a frequent tactic of clients to distract you onto another topic. This takes you perhaps to something that the partner wants to discuss and away from any difficult or controversial questions that you might like to talk about. If additional questions come up that your customer would like to talk about, make a note of them so that you can actually come back to those points later in your meeting.
13. Know what you’re talking about
Sales teams are often tempted to answer all of the questions that their clients ask for fear of appearing ignorant and losing credibility in front of them. Or in Asia they may be frightened of losing face. That’s one of the reasons why it’s really important to do as much homework and preparation in advance of the meeting into as many questions as possible. That way you can really be sure that you can prepare all of the topics that are likely to come up at least.
However if a question comes up which you really can’t answer, then it’s important that you find a way of charmingly or elegantly avoiding giving a proper answer. Don’t let yourself be pushed into giving an answer on a topic that you know nothing about.
That allows you to think about it and come back a little bit later without having to say “I haven’t got the foggiest idea”.
So we carried out a well-prepared meeting and that means it’s time to relax and enjoy life a little bit, right?
I know it’s easy to think that the work is already been done, but actually the preparation and the meeting itself are only half the story. You still need to make sure that you write the minutes of the meeting and that the to dos are all carried through.
14. Write the Meeting report
There’ll be a separate post on this as this is such a key element of how to optimise meetings, so I’ll just summarise the main points here.
It’s necessary to have a written record to the meeting because you need to have a summary of the salient points explained with enough context that a person who wasn’t in the meeting can follow what was needed. Keep it concise and actionable.
My personal opinion would be that the minutes of meeting are both a necessary evil and the useful tool. I don’t know anybody who really likes to write meeting minutes. In the end though if you don’t do it, you come to the next meeting with that partner and you don’t know what you agreed to in detail last time you were there, or the customer tries to tell you that you agreed to pay for something that you are perfectly sure that you didn’t but you can’t prove otherwise.
Create a system for preparing the report and stick with it
Reports (be it in your company CRM, or as an email to the partner) need to be completed at the earliest possible opportunity after you’ve left the partner’s office. Otherwise the information becomes irrelevant and the report is a pointless exercise.
On long international trips, that may take considerable self-discipline to implement but I’d strongly recommend it.
15. System for Following Up if all To Dos have been completed
Make sure that you implement a system to follow up on to dos specified in the report and to check that people actually execute on those tasks which were assigned to them.
This point is valid for internal as well as external information, and don’t forget to include yourself in that. If there are delays then it’s really important that you keep the customer informed of them so that they know when they can expect you to come back to them with the information they are waiting for.
So to summarise the main principles of how to optimise meetings
- Do thorough preparation
- Standardise as much as you can with systematisation
- Introduce structure into your meetings, preparation and follow-up
- Practice self discipline
- Encourage customers to work according to your methods
- Set high standards for yourself and have the same expectations of others
It’s often said that meeting time should be kept to a minimum, however I’d question whether that is really so relevant in the international context. I don’t mean that you (or your team) should be spending a week everywhere, but there is a case for arguing that time spent discussing with the customer is rarely wasted. It’s therefore more a question of how to optimise your international sales meetings for effectiveness rather than necessarily looking at how to cut down face time with the partner.
How does your international sales team organise their meetings with partners?
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