You and your team are making a critical presentation to the buyers representing the company you hope to sign as your next big customer. You’ve been working on this deal for quite a while. They finally invited you to submit a written proposal–and you’ve made the cut! Now you’re in the top two or three to earn their business.
Everything is going fine until one of the buyers confronts you with a hostile question. I’m not talking about a typical tough question; rather, I mean one that is obviously designed to trip you up. Maybe he targets the most nervous person on your team. Or perhaps she just throws it out to the group. How can you be sure everyone keeps their cool?
I hope you started preparing for that question before you left the office, because first everyone needs to be still. No knee jerk reaction. Give it an instant and then activate your plan. And what’s the plan?
- Someone on your team is orchestrating your part of the meeting. That person’s job is either to answer or redirect the question, such as: “I’m going to ask Dave to handle that one.”
- Dave’s going to respond appropriately because he and the rest of you have practiced handling hostile questions, so you’re not caught off guard.
- Dave will know how to read the situation and have a dozen ways to answer hostile questions.
Here are some of them, in no particular order:
1. Take it as if it were not hostile. Don’t answer in kind! Give them a brief, literal answer.
2. Treat it with a little humor (not sarcasm.) Do this only if you are good at it and you can tell that other people are annoyed by the question.
3. Table it. “Let’s get the IT teams together to work on that one.”
4. Restate the question. “I’m not sure I understand your question. Do you mean . . . ?”
5. Politely challenge. “I think you may have misunderstood . . . or “Maybe I wasn’t clear. What we actually meant was . . . .”
6. Re-frame the discussion strategically. “Let’s back up a minute–maybe we haven’t given you enough background.”
7. Switch the discussion from numbers to people,from costs to benefits, or from inputs to outcomes.
8. Reiterate the common ground that both groups are trying to achieve. Suggest an alternative path.
9. Turn the tables. “What do YOU think? or “What’s the answer you’re hoping to hear? Maybe we’re closer than you might think.”
10. Repeat the facts. Focus on information.
11. Remind them of the agenda. “Tell me more about how your question fits with __________ so I can be sure to gt it right.”
12. Delay. “I’m really not sure I have the answer to that one right now–I haven’t really thought of it that way yet. Our team will have to work that out and get back to you by close of business tomorrow.”
In the face of hostile questions, your demeanor is much more important than your answer. Not saying the wrong thing is much more important than nailing the right thing. Keep it short, stick to the facts, stay on your agenda. Just don’t get drawn in to displaying anger or fear, or overreacting. The other people in the room will use your behavior as a barometer of how your team will behave in an inevitable tense situation down the road. Be sure you don’t scare them!
An remember the theme of this series–why it’s so important to rehearse!