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"