I’m sure some of you reading this will be thinking, “why on earth does she believe we need to write excellent meeting minutes in international sales?“. I know that this is a divisive topic and the thought of writing meeting minutes or visit reports is hardly one that fills most of us with joy.
There are many differing opinions about writing meeting minutes. Some people see it as a necessary evil. Some people see it as an essential tool. Others don’t believe that meeting minutes are necessary whatsoever.
Why are meeting minutes even necessary for international sales?
I’ve got into quite heated discussions at time with people on LinkedIn who have said it’s not necessary anymore to write meeting minutes. You can just record every meeting, especially if it’s a video meeting or phone meeting and then you have a transcript of the whole thing.
Yes you can, but let’s look at it this way: Do you have time to go through a transcript of a two day international client meeting every time you want to check one simple point? That might work, if you are in domestic sales and your line manager needs a tool for coaching on how to make client calls,, but it’s not practical for longer international meetings.
No, 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 the main decisions and why they were made. (If you answered yes to that question above about time, your issue is a different one ? )
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, but in the end if you don’t, you come to the next meeting with that customer and you don’t know what you agreed to in detail last time you were there. Or maybe 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.
What makes it so critical to write excellent meeting minutes in international sales?
Of course, you need good meeting minutes for any kind of in depth longer meeting, but there are few reasons that make it really important to write truly excellent minutes when you’re working in international sales.
That sounds really basic, doesn’t it? Think about it for a minute though. If you have an internal meeting, it probably lasts for an hour, maybe 2, but is unlikely to go for longer than half a day.
If you visit an international client though, chances are that you spend 1-3 days with him, depending on the purpose of your visit. Many topics will have been touched on several times in the course of that meeting, both formally and perhaps also during meal times or late at night, so the meeting minutes allow you to put the final decision succinctly down in writing as well as to include any analysis.
Usually, when writing a visit report in the context of international sales, you have several participants who have different native languages to one another. That leaves more room for misunderstandings, but if you can really write excellent meeting reports then a number of potential future problems can be avoided.
Several Topics are Discussed which affect people not present in the meeting
As I’ve said in the past, if you work as an International Business Development Manager, you have to be prepared to discuss ALL the relevant topics for that client, not only those related to sales. Unless you want to explain everything 6 times back in the office, I’d really recommend that invest the time in writing decent meeting minutes.
Complexity of International Business
In many domestic sales roles, the main points of a meeting can be entered into a CRM system in a matter of minutes will a few clicks. Unfortunately, the complexity of international business relations usually mean that this kind of system isn’t enough for recording meeting results.
Long business trips are a killer. You fly from city to city, country to country in a concentrated space of time, with barely enough time for self care or sleep. If you don’t write excellent meeting minutes in international sales, you won’t have a clue about the more complex points, when you get back to the office. This is really critical when you are discussing more or less the same topics with 5 or 10 customers on one trip. eg details of the annual budgets or the mechanism of a new product launch across a region.
Anyone who has ever been on those kinds of trips has been tempted at some point to cut the odd corner. Don’t! Your future self will thank you!
How should you go about writing meeting minutes?
Preparation for your meeting
Make sure that you have a standard structure for your minutes, and use it also for preparing your meeting in the first place. The more groundwork you can do up front, the easier it will be to write your report afterwards. If there are certain charts eg. your internal sales development with the partner that you always include into your report, then you can probably add those right away before you even leave home. Include any analysis. That provides you with a basis for later where you can just add additional details as required.
You can read more details about preparation in my post on how to optimise meetings with international partners.
This is a key skill if you want to write excellent meeting minutes in international sales. You need to find out what works best for you. A couple of points to bear in mind though:
- handwriting has been scientifically proven to have better memory retention rates than typing directly into a laptop
- typing on a laptop means that you are potentially open to the temptation of looking at emails coming in (or other distractions)
- if you type on your laptop, it may be interpreted by your partner as a lack of attention to what he is saying (indeed it probably is, if you are anything other than an excellent touch typists)
- in order to write excellent meeting minutes in international sales, you need to analyse and potentially research several points after the meeting. That means that you can’t just immediately type the finished version as you either will be missing a large amount of the context or it will be a simplistic representation of your discussion.
Timing is critical
Meeting minutes should be finished as soon as possible after the end of the meeting. Ideally they should even be finished before you begin the next meeting, but at the very latest they should be finished one week after the meeting. No matter how you prefer to prepare your meeting minutes.
You might dictate them. Maybe you type them. That is not so important. The main point is that they need to be done and done well, because otherwise they can result in confusion & misunderstandings and that can lead to a loss of business.
Working like this, nothing gets forgotten or mixed up between between customers. It’s a dreadful feeling if you take over a client from a predecessor (in these kinds of cases, you can be sure they’ve already left the company) & at the first client meeting the partner tells you that your predecessor promised longer payment terms/extra budget/free goods as samples… If you don’t have great minutes to fall back on, you can have no idea if that partner is genuinely feeling badly done by or just trying it on with a a new person.
When you write the minutes immediately, the details are fresh in your mind – even the ones that you didn’t make a note of. It also allows you to structure your ideas about how the meeting went whilst you still have a clear impression about the customer’s non-verbal communication.
Realistically speaking, writing excellent visit reports is simply a question of self discipline and getting on with it. Personally I really detest to write meeting reports, but it really is best to get it over and done with whilst it’s still fresh in your mind. Even times when you want to sleep. In fact working on aeroplanes is one of the most effective ways of using time in order to get your minutes of meeting up-to-date.
The bare bones
- Where and when did the meeting take place?
- who was present?
- which people are on the circulation list, even if they were not in the meeting?
- Topics discussed
- Decisions made
- Who is responsible for executing each task
- Deadlines for tasks
Tailor your content to your audience
Writing the report, think about who the report is for. Who is the recipient of the report? If the report is purely for your boss, then you need to include different kinds of information than if the report is purely for your client. Often in export, meeting reports are for a mixture of the two. That is then including all of the people who need relevant information from your visit within the company, but also within your client’s company.
Therefore it’s important that you include a certain amount of context so that the recipients can follow why certain decisions were made. Don’t simply write “we decided to do this or to do that”. Of course you don’t need to write novels, but the content needs to be tailored to the audience that you’re targeting, so that they can follow up on what needs to be done.
It’s not War & Peace you’re writing (even if your meeting felt like that)
Like I said it’s not a case of writing a novel. Nonetheless, there are certain points that have to be included and a certain amount of background information is necessary in order to give you or to give people who weren’t in the meeting a full picture. Anyway if you are dealing with a lot of clients, it can be very complicated to keep track of all of the details.
It’s a horrible feeling to come back to your minutes the next time you want to visit that client and thinking you’re not entirely sure of the mechanism for reimbursing him for certain marketing costs on a campaign that you agreed to. Just because you didn’t take the time to clearly structure that in your meeting report, you have to wing it on the next visit and that can end badly. In short, there has to be enough detail that those people who are affected by the discussion points, but were not present, know what was decided or what they have to do.
Keep to the KISS principle, and keep things simple. Your minutes have to be written so that somebody who wasn’t in the meeting can understand what you agreed. Perhaps most importantly who will pay for what you agreed upon because at the end of the day that is often where future disagreements lie if not properly defined in advance.
Have a standard structure
As I mentioned in the preparation phase, it pays to have a standard structure so that it’s easy for everyone to always navigate your meeting minutes. That should include
- the topics which were discussed
- the main details of those who is responsible for taking care of any to do’s
- the deadline
- some space for that person to add any additional comments that they might have
It can be useful to use the same framework that you actually prepared for the preparation of the meeting to prepare your meeting minutes. Then you can build in certain parts of the data in advance. For example if you want to make an analysis of certain sales figures, you can already include the charts and then just add the commentary from your client from the discussion afterwards.
Pictures speak louder than words
It’s good to include occasional pictures although they need to be kept as simple as possible. If you carried out store checks or market visits, then it’s a good idea to include one or 2 key images to demonstrate the points you want to underline, & link to a file where the rest are to be found. You don’t want your meeting minutes to be expanded to take up 20 or 25 pages of A4, but this can be the easiest way to illustrate a point. The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is true as long as it’s the RIGHT picture.
Include Additional Information as Links
I personally like to include links to all the presentations. That way, I can focus on the decisions and analysis in the minutes without having to repeat everything which is included there. It keeps your meeting report a bit more compact.
Unless you are a 1950’s parish council, meeting minutes are not purely a report of everything that was said during the meeting. They should include a summary of why things developed in that way and you should analyse the results that are in there, rather than saying “Mr Smith said this and Miss Wade said that.” It’s more important to say “sales grew in the second quarter by 16.7% due to the marketing campaign that we ran in March and April. In particular, the combination of a targeted digital campaign and special offers for our membership contributed to these results.”
Incorporate the Learnings
Include the learnings into your report. Usually if you’ve carried out marketing campaigns, or if you tried something new together with your client, then there will be a reflection period during your meeting as to what went well and what potentially didn’t go so well. It’s important to document these learnings so that you can improve for the next time.
Clearly delegate tasks
Make sure that all of the to dos include a deadline & a responsible person who needs to follow up on which points until when. Decisions need to be clear: don’t write don’t write blah blah because nobody is interested to read that. It should be a clear decision who will send which information or who will analyse which information and what will be the next steps in order to set activities which should lead to sales growth.
Be especially clear about financial questions
Anything which costs money can also rapidly cost the relationship that you have hopefully built with that customer or distributor. For example there is a lot of research done in western countries showing that money is one of the most frequent causes of divorce. You don’t want this to happen with your business partnerships!
It’s really easy for misunderstandings to arise about who will pay for what, and who will pay how much and contribute how much to which activities. Make sure that this is put down in writing including how that will be calculated at the end (and when), which mechanism will be used for the client to get the money, or for you to reimburse the client, or for you to balance the books with the client.
Distribute without delay to the relevant people
Make sure you send the minutes without delay to all of the relevant people as mentioned earlier that should be at the latest a week after you left the client. It’s important to always get a confirmation from your partner that the minutes are correct and complete.
Can I delegate writing the minutes to the partner?
You can…but I wouldn’t recommend it. Many companies don’t view visit reports as a powerful tool, they just pay lip service to them. If your partner has this attitude then you don’t want to hand over control of the minutes. It can take almost as long to go through and check a bad set of meeting minutes as it does to just write them yourself in the first place. It also means that you can ensure a neutral tone is used, especially when it comes to problems in the relationship. You should control the narrative as even subtle differences can be perceived as negative to another reader.
A necessary evil
That’s my personal opinion about minutes. I detest writing them, so have spent years honing my skill so they take the least time possible. Now, if I use the time after security at the airport until boarding, and then finish up on the plane, I probably still have time to sleep a bit, even on a short inter-city flight of a couple of hours. That’s what I call a win!
It’s not some kind of black art to write excellent meeting minutes in international sales, but like most other things it takes a bit of practice and requires you to care about what you are doing. Some of the worst things you can do are:
- making it as long as your final assignment at uni
- copy-paste from one visit to the next (if you have sales managers who use this technique, you need to ask why they even visited the partner), although at certain times, you might use elements in the minutes for several partners (eg. when you need them to collect data from the market for you, or send a budget proposal)
- including a blow by blow account of who said what over hours of meeting
- putting in ALL the pics so that the file is too large to open fast
- spending so long writing it that the info is already outdated
At the end of the day, the minutes of your meeting are a working document, a tool to help you, your colleagues and your partners stay on top of the business and how you want to grow in the coming months. They help you also to clarify your own thoughts and opinions after a meeting. If you are not using your minutes in this way, then you need to change something either in your meeting reports or in the processes.
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