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Make the meeting count

Most meetings are important. They are the window into the company’s heart and mind. If you learn how to execute a winning high-level meeting, you will open doors to the offices of senior executives. Getting the attention of top management in a high-powered company is a major achievement, but it can also cause major anxiety. To hold the focus of a superior and move the discussion to the next level, salespeople must go into these high-powered meetings alert and spontaneously responsive. These course-changing sessions require a presentation that goes above and beyond the ordinary. Intelligent questions and free-flowing, problem-oriented dialogue should be the focal points of the assemblage.

“Executives believe that meetings are a forum for exchanging ideas, and they are prepared to be led by a skilled questioner along a path of discovery,” say Nicholas Read and Stephen Bistritz in their new book, “Selling to the C-Suite: What Every Executive Wants You to Know About Successfully Selling to the Top.” “Salespeople who ask the right questions to uncover problems impress senior executives.”

Those “right questions” comprise the biggest portion of an effective executive meeting, say the authors. That meeting, they say, should include four parts: an introduction, exploration of the issues, a brief look at solution options, and a plan for ensuing steps. Here are the authors’ four parts to a successful meeting. The times given are for a one-hour meeting; adjust them proportionately for the time of your meeting.

Introduction (10 minutes). Refer to the call that got you the executive meeting, citing your sponsor or the person who referred you, if appropriate. Briefly mention your past experience, either in the executive’s organization or with similar companies. Finally, “set the expectation for the mutual value you expect the meeting to deliver,” say the authors. “Meetings without a stated outcome are usually a waste of an executive’s time.”

Issues and Implications (25 minutes). This is the meat of the meeting, where you’ll ask questions that show you’ve done your homework and reveal issues the executive might not have considered. This is your chance to develop an understanding of the issues and the key people to whom you should be talking. Leave solution-related questions for later.

Solution Options (15 minutes). Once the issue has been clearly defined, offer your thoughts on potential solutions. “Waiting until the end of the meeting to explore solutions builds credibility with the executive,” explain the authors. “Keep in mind that the conversation must remain at all times on a peer-to-peer level, discussing problems and solutions, not products. So address your solutions from the perspective of delivering business value to the company and personal value to the executive, not from a features/function standpoint.”

Moving Forward (10 minutes). Agree on next steps and an action plan that includes a follow-up meeting with the executive to further explore these issues. To the second meeting you will bring an expert who can help move the conversation to the next level.

It is important that you appear comfortable and relaxed. You can have notes but don’t script the meeting too much. The executive must feel that you are going to offer strategic value or his span of attention narrows and eventually disappears. To avoid embarrassment and a premature conclusion to what was a very promising meeting, be prepared, be sincere and follow your four- point plan. Simply put: listen, ask questions, and uncover the problems and the impact they are having on the company, and whatever you contribute to the solutions will be appreciated and rewarded.