The room temperature was rising.
The air conditioning wasn’t working effectively. And, although I wasn’t aware of it, neither was I.
I’d been sitting in a plush, modern, boardroom about half an hour, alongside one of my consultancy colleagues.
For nearly fifteen minutes i’d been explaining in great detail to our prospect, two senior executives from a large supermarket chain, how we had previously dealt with issues similar to their’s.
I was on top form. Waxing lyrical. Laying it all out for them.
The carefully researched strategy. The innovative plan of action. The creative use of resources. The dangerous pitfalls to avoid. Timelines. Inputs. Processes. Key performance indicators. Everything.
In my boldness, cleverness and certainty, I had been unaware of my colleague’s hand nudging my leg underneath the boardroom table, until he finally dug me sharply on the thigh.
Furtively, he secreted a folded piece of yellow legal notepaper into my hand, out of sight of the executives. Whilst my colleague said something to the them I carefully opened it out, trying not to make a rustling sound. Without shifting the angle of my head, I slowly lowered my eyes to see what was written. It said, simply:
I was taken aback. Confused. What on earth was wrong? I had been impressing them with how we could help them achieve the result they said they wanted. Now I was stunned.
My colleague took over, even before I’d had time to digest the note. And, he wasn’t presenting solutions, he was posing questions. Inciting them to think.
His speech, slower than mine. His voice, quieter. His tone, softer.
The temperature in the room felt as if it dropped a few degrees.
“Can we go back for a second and revisit the outcome you say you need?”. They nodded. He continued “Can you go a bit deeper, why exactly you consider the problem lies with your company’s ability to implement properly?”
They looked at each other. A slightly awkward silence ensued. I was desperate to intervene, to suggest a few possible causes. But, I didn’t.
Eventually, after what seemed an age, one of them spoke. A discussion slowly and tentatively unfolded. And, my colleague probed further. Never once suggesting a solution.
I listened intently. The executives were having difficulty in answering some of the time. I could see, on their face, they were being forced to think deeply.
It was as if they were discovering inside themselves, for the first time, what some of the true issues were in causing them to fail to implement strategically.
This wasn’t now a client presentation. Instead, an explorative lab.
After a further fifty minutes or so, and in a very different atmosphere, they concluded. Perhaps the main problem wasn’t in getting the organisation to implement, but in the senior executive team’s management of the company in implementing. This was a subtle but profound shift.
It meant a very different solution was needed.
That day, nearly fifteen years ago, was a turning point for me. I had learned some harsh and abrupt lessons in attempting to win new business. I resolved to improve. And, to listen much more carefully and ‘cleanly’ to win more clients.
Looking back, there were a number of lessons, including:
1/ Deploying silence, as a question.
Deliberately holding silent ‘space and time’ for longer, so that the prospective client takes it as a prompt to go further in thought. And, not rescuing a prospect from any discomfort they may feel from the use of silence.
2/ Listening to what, precisely, they are saying.
Including how, exactly, they are describing matters. What modifiers are they are using in their wording? What gross generalisations do they make?.
3/ Listening to what, precisely, they are not saying.
Including what are they missing in their responses? What might they be avoiding in their answers? Where do they appear to be uncomfortable?
Nowadays, taken together with a number of other ‘signals’, I consider what insights or further questioning this might suggest?
For me, this is not a linear process. Much more of an iterative, and intuitive, one. And, the result of all this?
More business. More clients. More income.
But, it wasn’t something I learned once and for all. Like many of life’s best lessons, I have to remember to remember.
I remind myself before going into a prospecting meeting to: allow a lot of ‘time and space’, listen cleanly, and probe very deeply.
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