I recently had an appointment with a physician who had also been a friend for some time. Afterwards, he asked me about my impressions from visiting his practice. One of the things I told him was this:
“On arrival, I was greeted pleasantly, then given a stack of forms to fill out. Had you sent them to me prior to the visit, ideally electronically, I would probably have tried to do so accurately, with a bonus that they would have been legible if you had enabled me to do them on my computer. But upon getting them at your office, my only priority was speed, to avoid a delay in getting out of there, and on top of that, there were at least two pieces of information that you requested that I didn’t have memorized or on my iPhone.”
In a meeting with a group of executives with whom I was working on developing a distributor outreach program, I relayed that story, followed by a question as to whether it made sense to provide the targeted distributors some themes and materials on which we had planned to focus in advance of the actual meetings. That question yielded a division among the meeting participants.
One group argued that spontaneity was critical to the success of such discussions. These individuals said that they got tremendous value from hearing the distributor team members think though an answer to a question, especially when the answer wasn’t obvious.
They claimed that top-of-mind answers were often the best. Several of them also provided examples as to how the interactions around a theme had yielded great insights and improved the bond between the meeting participants from the two organizations. On the negative side, this group argued that advance information would lead to canned messages that were more political than instructive.
The second group, of which I was a member, argued that in discussions involving complex questions, there was a benefit from a period of reflection, especially to the extent that the distributor participants took the time to query others in their firms about the topic. We argued that with strong long-term relationships with these distributors, the likelihood of the answers only reflecting “political posturing” was low, and that these firms had a strong incentive to contribute constructively and engage in discussions. We also felt that it was always possible to save a few “provocative questions” to trigger the spontaneity that the other group valued.
Our most telling argument was that had someone asked some of the questions that were on the table to us, we would have been hard pressed to give anything approximating a quality answer in short order.
British author Jane Austen once noted that “Surprises are foolish things. The pleasure is not enhanced, and the inconvenience is often considerable.” As we concluded this discussion, the team’s decision didn’t go far enough to suggest that they had bought into her assessment lock, stock, and barrel, but it did incorporate actions that eliminated the dimension of total surprise from the planned discussions.
There were two areas in which the group agreed that advance outreach and materials would yield an improved discussion. First were themes related to business systems, information and information systems, and business processes. The conclusion reached by the group was that these topics were ones where the necessary information for a useful discussion was not in the top-of-mind category, most likely requiring a bit of study and discussion with others in the distributor organization. It was agreed that discussions that were focused on these themes would benefit greatly from pre-work.
The second category involved discussions about prospective collaborative investments. The argument that yielded agreement that there was an advantage to pre-meeting outreach was that such topics would most likely only yield a “we’ll get back to you on that” response. It was felt that the distributors would want to reflect on the proposed ideas in the context of their own plans and priorities, with pre-meeting outreach giving them a chance to do so prior to the actual discussions. Pre-meeting outreach at least created the potential for a discussion that had some content and for creating action items beyond scheduling a follow-up meeting.
Initiatives like the one planned by this organization to engage key channel partners in discussions of strategy and plans are of tremendous value, but it is important to recognize that they involve an investment on the part of both organizations. Taking steps to ensure that the investment is kept within bounds and that it yields results requires careful planning and a willingness to consider strategies that will ensure both quality and efficiency in the discussions.
In this instance, determining which discussion topics could benefit from pre-meeting outreach served to improve the discussions and make better use of the time of the participants from both organizations.
Please feel free to email George any questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
 See George F. Brown, Jr., Posing Provocative Questions, Business Excellence, May 2012 for examples of such questions and their use in voice of the customer programs.