I had a hard time trying to get the client to focus. X likes to talk a lot. Sometimes give too much information.

Sometimes X talks x-self into circles and i forget what the question is.

I try my best to formulate succinct direct questions and i don't want to interrupt him too much; as i feel it may be impolite.

What is the best way to politely direct him to pick a conclusive answer?

To put this in context, I was trying to elicit important information about his interests in pursuing a feature and X wanted to talk about x's business and how they're growing.


This is more an art form than a science, and one that is hit and miss for me. Pretty much it depends on your relationship with the client, how close you are, how formal it is but the basics are the same.

The reasons they do this:

  • They don't know where this fits into the bigger picture ... so they talk about the whole picture in order to orientate themselves.
  • They don't know what the answer should be.
  • They are scared to make the wrong decision, it could be their job or their business on the line (or it may feel like it is).
  • They don't completely trust you. If you're a marketer or project manager then you probably don't know enough about the details. If you're a techie they don't understand what you're saying (but if they did they probably would trust that you know what you're saying)

So what can you do about this?

Setting it up right. Most of your ability to guide the meeting is happens before you walk in the door.

  • Targeted meeting with defined goals: "I want to meet with you to get a decision on X" over "I would like to meet and discuss stuff"
  • Defined time frame, "this should take about half-an-hour" (or whatever)

Guiding them back on track. Once you have set up the goal of the meeting you can use this as the point to draw their attention back to. "That is very nice (etc), getting back to the focus of today's meeting".

Providing structure. If its features / workflow then diagrams and pictures or a list of options to choose from. This gives you something to point at while saying "that's nice, getting back to the goal of today's meeting". It also gives them a context to understand their decision in, vague handwavy stuff or a lot of words is very hard for most people to grasp and feel safe with.

Providing a logical default.

  • There is a lot of writing about logical defaults and how setting up the right default will lead you to the right outcome. I recommend listening to a few of the BayCHI podcasts on the issue as well as tech nation podcasts ... there was a good example about organ donations, countries who are "opt in" have 7% donation rate compared to "opt out of donating" have a 93% donation rate ... purely because the default is provided that way.
  • If you go into the meeting with "this is the default choice, but your welcome to change it" then in 80-90% of cases your default will be the option which is selected. This is especially true if you are a trusted advisor / domain expert ... they have to be pretty sure if they want to disagree with you ...

Remove the fear.

  • If you're not the domain expert, bring one and give them the instructions to be an observer until asked. Work out with them before hand the best way they should phrase the answer ... be ready to head them off as they dive into the detail, techies can't help themselves, (I know, I'm one of the worst offenders).
  • Have the key benefits AND drawbacks of at least your default option. If they can see and understand then the fear is reduced significantly. If the benefits are visible then the real driver to make the decision can overcome the fear of the wrong decision. eg. "you're currently loosing $10,000 per day, this change will stop that bleeding because ..." suddenly there is a clear reason for a decision.

Basically as the consultant it is your job to set the scene, give the client enough information, remove the obstacles to them making the decision and keep the meeting on track.

That said, I get this right somewhere between 60 and 70% of the time, really it's preparation and practice mixed with building a good relationship with the client so you can say "seriously you're getting side tracked, can we focus now so we can go down the pub"


I see a few options open:

  1. Find a different point of contact - tell the person that you need 'a lot' of one-on-one business time and obviously this person is not available due to their hectic schedule etc. Offer a few names from the company that you feel has the knowledge and focus.

  2. Timing - time your meetings prior to lunch, reinforce that you need the info prior to lunch and you can chit-chat at lunch time.

  3. Charge them - your time costs, pass it on, if not with the current project (fixed costs?) than with the next one.


Politely ask him to write, not talk

  • How would you do this at a face to face meeting? I don't think it would feel right. – chrisjlee Jul 13 '11 at 14:48
  • During the meeting - enjoy the meeting. But later ask him to write what you really need to know – yegor256 Jul 13 '11 at 22:55

You have some great answers, here. I have a couple of tips I developed when working with someone who was more interested in talking about the next idea than making decisions on the current project.

  1. make a point form list of what you need to get before you leave the meeting and try not to have more than 5 objectives
  2. listen to them talk - they need to do this because it's their communication style. And, yes if it's an external client they are charged for your time no matter what they do with it.
  3. use phrases to focus them back on the topic. "That's sounds really cool. maybe we can look into it when .... Now, about this decision." or "I'd love to hear more about that, why don't we get through this list and then we can get back to it."
  4. Always remember you don't want to turn the meeting into a struggle for control. This is your client, they are paying for your service and you want more work from them. But, you have to get what you need from the meeting.

Good luck

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