“Our only agenda today is to find out what your agenda is.”


This is the way I have opened many client meetings – meetings where the goal was to craft a superior contingent labor and workforce solution for them. As opposed to a monologue or a “show up and throw up” presentation approach, the goal is getting into the client’s deepest, darkest world and uncovering their true talent acquisition and retention challenges, and hopefully, their latent desires. But to do that, you must put the focus on them and their agenda and, let’s be brutally honest, that’s not always easy given our very human instinct to talk incessantly about ourselves and our company.


In an even more radical approach, I have sometimes clearly stated that the meeting would NOT include anything about our company’s solutions, services or strategies unless the client specifically asked for them. Concentrating on discovery puts the bullseye directly where it needs to be – on them. They are then freed up to unleash the naked truth of where they are – good, bad, or ugly – and where they desperately need to be. In other words, they can unveil their agenda in a safe place where they are the hub of all communication.


The worst possible scenario is what I call “the dating game.” This is where everyone comes all gussied up, makes sure they are polite and politically correct and works incredibly hard at not saying anything that would be perceived as negative or overly honest, much like superficial speed dating. Although maddeningly frequent, this is the best possible way to ensure talent acquisition and retention problems are perpetuated and exacerbated.


So, how do we know that we are focusing on the client’s agenda and not our own? Here are some thoughts:


  •    Are we asking questions or making statements? It is impossible to collaboratively craft a solution without unabashed and unrelenting feedback from the client. I have never successfully listened and understood while my lips were constantly bumping together.
  •    Other than asking questions, who is doing the bulk of the talking? If it’s us, then we need to shut up and let them rant. If they aren’t talking 75% of the time or more, we are not on their agenda. Allow for uncomfortable silence until they either open up with measured comments or let it rip.
  •    Have we created an environment where nothing is off the table, where the client feels completely uninhibited in sharing? Other than unconstructive personal attacks, there should be a clear understanding that nothing is sacred and everything that happens in the meeting stays in the meeting, a la Vegas.
  •    Is there enough naked honesty in the room to expose the underbelly of their staffing challenges? If not, any potential solution could be akin to putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound, along with a dab of Neosporin.
  •    Does the client just state problems or does the context encourage an unyielding pursuit of root causes? In other words, avoid talking about the “what” without candor related to the “why.” Getting to the “why” is imperative in workforce solutions, or any problem solving for that matter.
  •    When the opportunity presents itself through an unambiguous request from the client, stop selling and start solving. Give honest answers and not sound bites or a regurgitation of your company’s taglines. Real problems deserve material, circumspect solutions not flippant adages and trite quips.
  •    Obvious attention seekers receive 50 lashes with a wet noodle and a stern invitation to take a day of PTO during the next scheduled meeting. The desire to hear the echo of your own voice helps no one and makes you look like and sound like a buffoon (excuse me, a silly person), especially when there is serious work to be done.
  •    If authentic dialogue doesn’t ensue, admit that crafting a viable and improved solution will be difficult, if not close to impossible. Remember two adages – “No data, no decisions” and “Information is power.”


Since what I’m roughly describing here is often called the Socratic Method, every business person (actually everyone) should read Socratic Problem-Solving in the Business World and other relevant articles on the principle.


Staffing suppliers: We often talk about differentiators, and approaching client solutions this way will certainly set you apart. But, being different is not the same thing as being a problem solver and a solution architect. There must be substance here and, after all the agenda seeking and “creative conversations,” you still have to build something better than before, something that mitigates pain and sets your client up to get to the next level in recruiting and retaining the most valuable asset – people.


Users of contingent labor: If your supplier isn’t approaching your staffing challenges – and you certainly have them – with this kind of probing circumspect seriousness, look elsewhere. If they show up with marketing slicks dangling from their pockets, cheesy swag, a PowerPoint deck called, “Staffing Solutions, No Questions Asked,” and vomiting up company slogans, then shoo them down the road. Find someone who cares enough to courageously ask hard questions, listen with understanding, and trust that your brazen honesty will help create collaborative game-changing solutions and a partnership you can grow and improve with.