Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Learn Everything You Can, Then Ask Great Questions!

Last month, I responded to Kelli Matthews' request to offer some client service advice to her students. I thought I'd spend the next few weeks crawling inside each of those seven pieces of advice to illustrate the points more completely.

The first point is to learn everything you can about your client's business. There's nothing that will impress a client more than someone who has come prepared - whether it's to a new business pitch or a client meeting. Of course the point of being prepared isn't to regale your prospect or client with your new-found knowledge, but to use the information to ask better questions. By asking questions that are above the basic and beyond the obvious, you'll save time, impress your client, and leave the meeting with the kind of insights that will help you craft truly outstanding PR recommendations.

Early in my career, while I was with an agency in Providence, Rhode Island, there was a prospect interviewing agencies. Four of us told the president of our firm that we'd like to participate in the agency review. He told us not to waste our time because there were going to be too many agencies involved, and we knew little to nothing about their business. We persisted and he finally said, "Fine, but do it on your own time."

We took it on as a personal challenge. He was right about the number of agencies and our lack of knowledge about the clients' business, but as far as we could tell, the other agencies had just as many competitors and didn't know much more than we did. So back in the days before Google, we found trade association material, trade magazines, etc. and compiled about 500 pages of research on the company and the industry. We all took it home over the weekend and everyone on the team read every page. We met on Monday to prepare for what was to be our "get acquainted interview" or phase 1 of the review process on the following day.

After compiling all this research a great part of us wanted to show the new prospect how much homework we had done. Instead, we chose to resist that temptation. We made the decision to hide all of our research and bring only yellow pads and pencils to the meeting. Our strategy was simply to have everyone on our team equally prepared, so that it didn't appear one person was knowledgeable while the others were just along for the ride, and to ask better questions than our competitors. We believed that if we asked higher level questions, we could advance to the next round. That was our goal.

About 30 minutes into the meeting, the VP of marketing for the prospective client reached over his head and slammed his pencil down onto the table exclaiming, "How in the world do you know so much about our business?" The question was like a hanging curve ball just ready to be hit out of the park. We of course replied that we don't believe the client should pay for our learning curve and that being well prepared is not only what we do as an agency, but it's part of who we are and that we'll continue to keep learning when you become our client. The meeting continued for another 45 minutes as everyone on our team asked more questions and listened intently to their responses.

At the end of the meeting, we invited the prospect to lunch at a local restaurant where we learned we were the last of the seven agencies he and his team were meeting in the first phase. By the end of lunch, he declared an end to his search and awarded us the business. You should have seen the look on our agency president's face when we returned to the office to tell him we had just brought home a seven figure account.

I was in my twenties at the time, and ever since then, I've never underestimated the power of coming to a meeting (client or new business) well prepared to ask good questions. And now, because we have tools like Google, it's never been easier to become knowledgeable. Fortunately, clients are as impressed today as they've ever been with people who are well prepared. And by the way, we also learned there's no such thing as a "get acquainted interview." I trust our competitors may have learned that lesson also.


  1. Great story, Leo! I've always found that being more prepared just lets me feel more comfortable with having a conversation with the client (potential or current!). The second a meeting turns from talking "with" me about their business challenges and asking my counsel for meeting them to talking "at" me about what they do or how they work, I know I've lost ground.

    Thanks so much for sharing these tips. I'm lucky to have you in my network.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to share this information. All of this applies to interviewing for a job, as well. So many of us are going out into the big bad market in June, and can use this advice to stand out to prospective employers. I think solid questions can really help set you apart.

  3. Little D, you're absolutely correct. Be well prepared, ask good questions, and demonstrate a truly positive passion for what you do, and you're likely to win the day in an interview!

  4. I love this story! I've noticed that it's a lot harder to know which are the right questions to ask if you don't do your research. I also like that you pointed out the amount of research you did WITHOUT the internet; I've found that most of my peers and myself have lost that ability.

  5. Great advice and great story, Leo. This is one of the things I love most about PR - constantly learning new things and researching/understanding totally new industries and fields. It certainly keeps the brain sharp. Thanks for sharing this great reminder to keep getting smarter every day.

  6. This story really highlights the importance of researching and knowing everything you can about your prospective employer before the interview. I found the information to be very helpful, especially for all of us who will be graduating this year.



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