Watch Your Ps and Qs

Quick Summary: You are on-stage, in full view, during your first meeting with a Goliath act accordingly.


Over the past several years, business-to-business interaction has become less formal.  However, following expected protocols, often unsaid, are still critical in forming any new relationship.  This is especially true for small David-sized companies when they approach Goliaths.  Carefully thinking through the sequence of the first meeting, your goals, and those of your potential partners can significantly enhance your chances for a positive outcome.

There are several explanations for the title phrase of this article.  Most seem to have evolved from the English saying of “Mind your Ps and Qs”.  One of the favorite explanations and used in the context of this article is “Mind Your Pints and Quarts” referring to a warning a bartender would give to a loud or unruly patron.  Today, a more acceptable phrase that has the same meaning is “Mind Your Manners”.  This thought must be clearly kept in mind when dealing with Goliaths.  Seemingly simple statements or actions could have significant impacts in the early stages of a relationship.  Every few days the national news highlights a political or celebrity protocol gaffe.  In virtually all cases, a simple phrase or gesture was made that had an entirely different interpretation than what was intended.  In most cases, the awkwardness was short-lived, and all parties moved on.  However, the innocent mistake could sour a relationship.  When dealing with a Goliath, why take a chance?  Be aware of and avoid the items listed below (at a minimum).

Be humble:  Big egos are commonplace in many Goliaths.  The big ego can be engrained in the company’s culture as well as with the individual employees themselves.  To be fair, most have a right to have big egos.  The company has proven itself to be successful by becoming a Goliath. Their egos may take center stage when dealing with a newer, smaller David company.  Always acknowledge their success and begin to frame the conversation in terms of what they can do for you before you discuss what you can do for them.  Always acknowledge their strengths.  Do not point out their weaknesses; they already know what they are.  Start by acknowledging a major positive milestone or press release.  Ask them about it to break the ice.

Be on time, no matter what:  Fly in the night before, arrive early, make a practice run, understand what doors you need to enter, find out what the reception process is and how long it will take.  In short, try to anticipate every delay that could occur.  If you are going to do a demo or show a presentation, make sure that you have everything it could possibly take.  Bring an extension cord, a spare computer, your material on a thumb drive, and paper copies that you can use as a fallback if necessary.  Always remember that time is either working for you or against you.

Expect others to be late:  Always be able to present a very short and concise summary to help bring new attendees up to speed quickly without boring those who were already in attendance.

Respect their time:  At the very beginning of any session, ask how much time is available and adjust your material accordingly.  Throughout the session, bluntly ask if you are covering the material that they want you to cover.

Check for uneasiness:  It is quite common for a David to want to tell their whole story first, without interruption.  Suggesting that questions be addressed at the end is a common technique.  However, the subtle message that is delivered when that request is made is “What I have to say is more important than your understanding now”.  If you sense uneasiness, stop and ask about it.  It is OK to put off answers but be sure to actually answer the question.

Dress or over-dress appropriately:  It may be OK for the Goliaths to show up in shorts and T-shirts, but it is never OK for you unless you are trying out for a field sport or meeting on a beach.  Your attire shows respect and sets the stage before you open your mouth or even smile.

Do not bring up Non-Disclosure Agreements:  If they bring the subject up, suggest that you intend to cover only high-level and non-confidential information only during the first meeting.  You should focus on what you do and not how you do it.  If they insist, ask to sign their NDA form, not yours.  If you present your NDA to them, you can bet that you will get the Goliath attorneys involved which may stop or delay the meeting for weeks. The reality is that NDAs seldom provide any protection to anyone.  Even if there was a gross violation, it will take years and probably cost millions to adjudicate.

Marking Slides with Company Confidential:  Simply marking slides with a company confidential or similar statement can trigger a Goliath to stop the meeting and insist on an NDA if one is not already in place.  The reality is that statements such as these have little effect on protecting any of the information that you will be sharing.  It is better to leave such declarations off the charts to avoid an awkward situation. 

Respect their customer relationships:  All companies covet their relationships with “their” customers and will be very protective of them.  Acknowledge this fact and play to it, suggest how you can enhance their existing relationships and make them even deeper and more meaningful.  Over time, it may become apparent that you may be better suited to take over or become directly involved with “their” customers.  Let the Goliath reach that conclusion on their own.

Use their name first:  During any discussion and certainly on all slides and material, list their company name first and then yours:  Goliath and David.  All of your messaging needs to be about them first.  Focus on what you want them to hear and perceive and not on what you want to say.

Avoid the “E” word:  Invariably, someone will bring up the notion of exclusivity.  What is usually meant by that term in the early stages is that Goliath wants you to work only with them while they are not willing to make the same commitment in return.  Answering with a definitive yes or no is not appropriate or even expected.  Light-hearted answers such as “we’ll see” or “this is only our first date” can usually table that issue until you are well into a firm relationship.

Ask for the next step, not the order:  Although forming a relationship with a Goliath may be your ultimate goal, it is unreasonable to expect any definitive commitment to be made during your first meeting.  It is highly doubtful that the right decision-making people are even in the meeting.  Instead, ask for what the next steps might be and when you can get back in touch with them.  Always end the session with you being responsible for the next step.  If the Goliath says, “We will get back in touch with you” you will have lost control.  This is one time, perhaps the only time, when a David should push a Goliath.  Work hard to keep control of the next steps.  Remember, your urgency and the Goliath’s urgency to form a relationship are probably not the same.

Follow up with thank you notes:  Take the opportunity to send follow up material that is relevant to the potential arrangement.  Remember, many of those who were present in the meeting will want/need to share the results with others; give them the supporting material to be effective.  No one can tell your story better than you can, “load their lips” with what you want them to say.

Show them that you care:  Handwritten notes always get read and remembered.  Make them short and sincere.  Send them to multiple people but with different wording.  Make them special.

The items listed above are certainly not an all-inclusive list.  However, all of them are easy to do and take only a short amount of time.  Davids always seem to be in a hurry and often do not take the time to consider some many of the “little things”.  Ignoring these little things can easily prevent the “big things” from happening.    Perhaps the Mind your Ps and Qs phrase should be thought of as Mind Your Positioning and Quality of your first impression.


Article Number : 5.050407   

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