So the reason I asked you to coffee is… Structuring impactful first meetings

by | Nov 17, 2020 | Business Development for Advisories, Networking, Selling

I love to chat with people. I love to hear stories of their personal journeys, what they’re most passionate about, and the goals they are working towards. I love to talk business ideas, methodologies and challenges. I love to hear about industries I haven’t worked with, and dive deeper into those that I have. I love to learn something new!

The joy of conversation to me is in discovering the unknown. The trouble with this is that sometimes my coffee conversations don’t fulfil the purpose for which I set them in the first place! The conversation goes down one delightful track after another, while never quite getting on the main track towards a meaningful outcome.

I’m all for going with the flow and having natural, authentic conversations that surprise you. Also, for making the conversation mainly about the other person by asking great questions and deeply listening. This is how rapport and trust are built, and how you learn things and get ideas outside of the sandbox you usually play in.

At the same time, the main reason I’m setting up these conversations each week is to build my business. For anyone networking for business development, it’s ridiculous to say that the underlying reason for your business coffee chats is anything else! Yes, there is the joy of connecting and the spirit of sharing and helping… but the bottom line is, we are exploring ways to do business.

COFFEE CHALLENGE 1: Making it worth everybody’s time

Although I love chatting with new people, I’m not very good at small talk. I am unlikely to ask all about your family’s history of barracking for a particular football team, or how many pets you have. I tend to jump into specific and sometimes personal questions about your business or working life (you’ve been warned!). One thing I’ve learned to do is plan ahead of time what I’d most like to learn through our conversation. It might be to explore a way you can help me with a goal (insights, connections, advice…), it might be to discover the business challenges you are facing, or it might be to learn more about your work. Of course, in the spirit of fair exchange I am also prepared to assist, explain, brainstorm or connect for you, too.

Planning ahead is the essential first step to a worthwhile coffee meeting:

  • Adequate background research will give you the most important questions to ask of your coffee companion (and also demonstrate that you’re interested in them).
  • This will lead you to think about opportunities to work with this person, and what you want to explore with them in relation to potential business needs.
  • You will also be able to cast your mind ahead of time to potential connections (Who do you both know? What commonalities? Who could you connect them with?).

COFFEE CHALLENGE 2: Getting the chance to demonstrate what you do

Because I love to hear others’ stories, and encourage people to tell them, I sometimes find that a natural opportunity to share mine doesn’t come up. If you are not directly asked,

‘So tell me more about what you do?’… it may not feel elegant to interject with a description of your services! At other times, you may be asked, but if the person interjects to tell a related story, you may not get to finish. Pushing your agenda in these cases can really work against you!

Questions to get the conversation back on track:

  • So how do you see us working together?
  • How do you think we can help each other?
  • What challenges have come up for you in business this year?
  • You mentioned you’ve taken a look at my website… did any questions come up for you?

COFFEE CHALLENGE 3: Making an impact by getting the value across, fast!

When you do get the opportunity to describe your work, it’s important to make the most of these precious few minutes. I have found that if I am not clear ahead of time on the language that gets and holds people’s attention, I can lose people easily… and then I start to waffle on to compensate, knowing all the while that this is not helping my cause!

I find that presenting a diagram that explains my practice areas helps to make an intangible service more tangible; likewise, being able to provide some very clear next steps about how people might work with me is effective in moving a casual enquiry along. But placing a brochure on the table or opening up your laptop can feel clunky and ‘salesy’ over coffee! It is always tempting to leave the material tucked away in my bag.

I try to look for a natural opening to present this sort of information, but sometimes I find it more effective to just workshop through a problem with the new contact, particularly if they have a specific question seeking my advice. The important thing is to ensure that there is a moment to make a connection related to the work you do – you don’t have to tell them everything, but provide a starting point to potentially continue the conversation later.

Create impact through the tangible:

  • A crystal-clear and succinct opening statement that explains the value you deliver
  • A simple model or diagram that supports the explanation of how you go about delivering this value
  • Specific examples of problems you help with and how
  • Client stories of how this worked for them

In working with hundreds of people representing themselves and their companies, I have found that most people lack confidence in introductory conversations due to a lack of clarity on how they will guide that conversation. I believe there are ways to move conversations towards win-wins without it feeling contrived or salesy… but it takes some planning and some practice.

‘Why should I guide the conversation at all?’

If you are still not convinced that business coffee conversations need thoughtful planning and execution, consider:

  • Most people suck at asking good questions or providing effective conversation openers
  • People tend to be a little shy with new people, and they’ll either take a passive approach or they’ll compensate by steamrolling the conversation (talking non-stop about themselves or about banalities)
  • The other person likely won’t have researched you deeply and won’t be prepared for the meeting

…so you’ll find most people are thrilled that you are guiding the conversation down a productive path!

To put it visually, there is an ideal middle ground between leaning back in your chair and leaning forward across the table. You shouldn’t treat a business coffee like a Friday afternoon at the pub, but you also shouldn’t zero in on your target and insist on giving them a sales pitch. Virtual coffee meetings in 2020 have forced us to find this middle ground between the casual and the formal. (You have done virtual coffee chats during #isolife, right?)

If you’d like me to share more of what I’ve learned about high-impact conversations and workshop through some scenarios specific to you or your team, do get in touch with me!

– JS

Look out for: Opening with a good quality starter question

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