Quarterly business reviews (QBR) have a lousy reputation. Countless slides and endless data but few insights. It’s boring for clients, a lot of work for account managers and a huge time-suck for everyone. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
What is a Quarterly Business Review?
Data has always been the foundation of a Quarterly Business Review. Reports show what the client transacted this period vs. last period vs. budget and the account manager’s job is to figure out why and what can be done to positively influence the results in the future.
Insert quarterly, half-yearly or annual as appropriate. This should be the time frame of the data reviewed, not the frequency of the meetings. So a review covering data January to June is a half-yearly review, not a quarterly review.
The account manager meets the client to present the QBR, prioritise objectives based on return on investment and agree a set of actions to achieve the results they want for the next period.
Getting data is easy. Figuring out what it means, what to do about it and how to present your recommendations in a such a compelling way it inspires your client to act. Now THAT’s the hard part.
Is your QBR boring?
With more than 15 years in account management I’ve prepared, presented and participated in hundreds of reviews. I speak from experience when I say QBRs are (mostly) boring. But don’t just take my word for it. If you’re not sure if your Quarterly Business Review is a bust, let me ask you if any of these have happened to you:
- You dread QBR time. It feels like torture.
- You prepare the QBR the day before (or even the day) it’s due. You barely read it but think to yourself “I’ve done this often enough, I can get through it blindfolded”. Done is better than perfect.
- Your clients dodge requests to schedule a QBR. You frequently skip them or else find yourself presenting January’s review in June.
- Your client cancels or reschedules your QBR at short notice. And it’s not the first time it’s happened.
- Participants drop off like flies as the QBR approaches or worse, you turn up, and half the audience is a no-show.
- You arrive at the QBR, and your client says they have to cut your time short. Like, in half!
- You get to your client’s office and discover they didn’t book a meeting room. You end up presenting the QBR at their desk, in the staff kitchen or the lobby.
- People are on their laptops and their phones instead of paying attention to your quarterly business review presentation.
- You share printouts of your QBR, and they all jump ahead to different sections. No-one is on the same page – or listening to you.
- During the QBR people get up and leave, apologising they can’t stay for the whole thing. Places to go, people to see and all that.
I could go on, but you get the point. If you’ve experienced any of these, chances are your QBRs are a dud. I hate to be brutal, but let’s rip the band-aid off.
If you haven’t, then I salute you. Keep doing what you’re doing (and let me know your secrets).
You’re probably thinking “My company’s QBRs are terrible, so what am I supposed to do?” Sure, it might not be so great out of the box, but a good carpenter doesn’t blame his tools. There are ways account managers can turn a dull, lifeless QBR into an exciting, engaging review everyone looks forward to.
Here are my Quarterly Business Review best practices to transform your review from boring to brilliant.
The secrets of a successful QBR
1. Don’t call it a QBR
Is there anything more uninspiring than “Quarterly Business Review?” Ugh. Sure, it says what it is: a meeting with your client to review the previous quarter and business performance. Still, it won’t have them lining around the corner for an invitation.
The objectives of a successful Quarterly Business Review are to
- review past performance and key metrics (spend volume, transaction volume, KPIs and SLAs);
- assess progress towards strategic goals;
- forecast future trends and plan for them;
- demonstrate the positive contribution your solutions are making to your client’s business.
I just don’t think Quarterly Business Review does it justice, do you?
What you call it will influence your client’s perception of the meeting and and its purpose. Instead of QBR, think of an exciting alternative that piques curiosity and better describes the objectives of the meeting.
Here are some ideas.
- Partnership Development Workshop/Review
- Strategy and Performance Workshop/Review
- Business Planning Workshop/Review
- Strategic Planning Workshop/Review
- Strategic Opportunity Workshop/Review
Choose Workshop for meetings which are more focused on setting objectives and planning. Choose Review for meetings focused on evaluating performance and making decisions.
If these suggestions don’t grab you, visit Power Thesaurus for more words you could use instead of “Quarterly Business Review” and let me know what you’ve come up with. I’d love to hear how you’ve rebranded your QBR into something more dynamic and engaging!
2. Keep it short
The fastest way to a boring QBR is to make it long. No client has the time or attention span to spend hours in a business review. Keep it to one hour. Devote 30 minutes to reviewing past performance and 30 minutes to future opportunities, goal setting and activities.
That means 10 to 15 slides.
For an annual review, you can extend to 90 minutes. You have more data to review over a longer period, and you’ll need more time to set objectives and decide targets for the year ahead.
If your client doesn’t want to meet quarterly, don’t force them. Some clients are perfectly happy with half-yearly reviews. It’s not like your not in touch in between QBR’s anyway?
Sustained attention is our ability to focus on activity over an extended period. A 2010 study of student attention spans during lectures found attention lapsed just 30 seconds into a lecture segment (the settling in period); the next lapse occurred at 4.5 to 5.5 minutes into the lecture; the next at 7 to 9 minutes; and the next at 9 to 10 minutes in.
So what does that mean?
You need to shake things up during the QBR and do something different to re-engage your audience every 10 minutes or so.
- Play a video (demo, testimonials, case study or just a funny video that supports the point you’ve made).
- Switch from PowerPoint to a whiteboard.
- Show an image or cartoon.
- Tell a story.
- Audience participation (live survey, quiz, questions).
Schedule reviews for mid-morning if you can. People are usually fresh, alert and in a better mood because their day hasn’t had the chance to turn to crap. Lunchtime and afternoon meetings get cancelled or cut short more often in my experience.
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3. Tell the QBR as a story
How can you bring the data to life and make it memorable? Presentation guru Nancy Duarte suggests a simple three-part story structure (beginning, middle, end) to create a message that’s easy to understand, remember and retell. It’s the perfect structure for a successful Quarterly Business Review presentation.
What should your story be about? Be guided by the data in the review. What is it telling you? How are they connected? What insights have you learned by analysing the underlying causes that led to the results?
The story is simply what happened, the vision of what could be and how you will guide them towards that glorious future. Make it an aha! moment. Something your client hasn’t thought of (or at least hasn’t given any attention to) that could make a big impact with your help.
Describe the current performance of your partnership (what is).
Introduce your vision for the future and establish the gap (what could be).
Develop the narrative by introducing more insights that contrast between the situation today and your recommendations to transform it for the better.
The big finish. You’ve explained the gaps and how to make your partnership better if your client follows your advice. Now wrap up the business review with an inspiring summary and include a call to action.
If you want to explore presentation design further here are some books I recommend.
The Compelling Communicator: Mastering the Art and Science of Exceptional Presentation Design by Tim Pollard is a fascinating book about designing presentations around a small number of powerful ideas using a logical narrative structure and visuals.
Another favourite book on presentation design is Show and Tell by Dan Roam. It explains how to make extraordinary presentations by telling the truth through story and pictures. There are a bunch of different storylines described for everything from a sales pitch to a report.
Just remember to mix things up. Even stories get boring when you hear them often enough.
4. The Rule of Three
Quarterly Business Reviews have tons of information sliced and diced in various ways: spend volume, transaction volume, key performance indicators and on it goes. I used to get review decks that were 60 slides long before I even started on them. There’s just no way anyone can remember it all.
Your job as account manager is to filter the data, ideas and recommendations and include only the most important in the review.
Human working memory stores information for 15 to 30 seconds and has limited capacity (between 5 to 9 items). Which means your client will forget most of your Quarterly Business Review before it’s even over!
A simple way to improve recall is to group information into chunks which make memorisation easier. Take a phone number, for example:
07527889321 is much more difficult to read then 075 278 893 21
The theory of chunking is incorporated into The Rule of Three which is a long-observed writing pattern used in speeches, nursery rhymes, songwriting and storytelling. For example, Ready, set, go… or beginning, middle, end. Avoid overwhelming your audience by presenting your insights and recommendations in groups of three short, powerful sentences. Your review will be more memorable and interesting if you do.
5. Use pictures
The Quarterly Business Review is packed with charts, and while yes, they are technically pictures, they also start to look the same after a while. To break the monotony, use a variety of visuals to engage your audience throughout the review.
- Images. Use images for title slides, to introduce a new section of your review or to pose a question to your audience. Download high-quality royalty-free images at Unsplash, Pixabay, Pexels and Rawpixel.
- Diagrams. Use diagrams to clarify hierarchy, processes and relationships between information. Download free PowerPoint slides at Diagrammer and HiSlide (they also have a nifty PowerPoint plug-in to download and insert diagrams directly into your quarterly business review presentation).
- Icons. Replace bullet points with relevant icons to highlight information (for example, if the subject is targets, choose an bullseye icon). Icons draw attention and help people quickly understand the subject matter. They also look slick and are a quick way to give your QBR a facelift. Iconfinder, Flaticon and The Noun Project are my favourite sources with millions of icons.
Not so boring now.
6. Stick to strategy, not tactics
For a successful QBR, keep it a high-level review on supplier performance, return on investment, progress towards goals, potential roadblocks and emerging opportunities.
Don’t get stuck in details or your strategic QBR will quickly dissolve into a problem-solving and complaint resolution mess. Keep operational and day-to-day matters away from the review by scheduling separate calls or meetings to address them.
If you’re at your client’s office to present the review, it can be efficient to set up an operational review meeting beforehand. I don’t like to do these types of meetings after the review because I want to leave the client on a high thinking about all the positive things we can accomplish together instead of on a low thinking about all the problems we have to solve.
Your QBR will be much more interesting, cohesive and engaging that way.
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7. Make the QBR an event
It might be a quarterly business review, but that doesn’t mean you can’t sprinkle a little marketing dust to generate some buzz and excitement. Send the message loud and clear to your client your QBR isn’t another meeting that could have been an email, but an exciting opportunity to optimise your partnership and create meaningful value.
Create an email sequence to promote the QBR. Send five emails that you’ll drip to participants before the actual review. These should generate excitement, let people know why the QBR is important and how their attendance will make it a success.
Your email sequence might go something like this:
Email 1: 30 days before. Send an invitation to the QBR – make it sound exciting – like a movie premiere! Let people know why they should be there and that they don’t want to miss it.
Email 2: 10 days before. Share a sneak peak at some data and an interesting trend you’ve discovered. They’ll need to be at the QBR to find out more.
Email 3: 4 days before. Send a copy of the quarterly business review, the agenda, what input you need from them and why this is one QBR they won’t want to miss.
Email 4: 1 day before. Send a final reminder about the review and let them know how much you’re looking forward to meeting.
Email 5: 1 day after. Send any follow up notes, action items and thank participants for making the QBR a success.
Can you see the difference an email sequence will make to the perceived value of your QBR compared to a single invitation?
Invite the right people. Include A-listers who have the authority to make decisions: subject matter experts, department heads, your boss, your point of contact’s boss. If your audience includes senior executives, it signals the business review is a strategic meeting, not just an operational one.
If you only meet with your main point of contact – you’re missing out on a big opportunity to make the QBR a much more interesting and productive event. You can get decisions made on the spot and move things forward more quickly. Plus who knows what they’re doing with the review afterwards? Are they even sharing it? The more people you invite, the more certain you can be that word is spreading about your successes.
Share good news. Highlight exceptional results, praise the work your main point of contact is doing and shine on a spotlight on any person or department that deserves a shout out. It’s a fun way to get the word out about the value you bring, the good work people are doing and bring an element of surprise and anticipation to the review.
Bring food. There’s nothing like donuts or muffins to attract an audience.
8. Send the QBR in advance
I once had a client who insisted I send her QBR a week in advance. I was miffed. “If I send it to her now,” I thought, “what would I talk about when we met?” She wasn’t the kind of client you told “No”, so reluctantly I sent it. She returned it with notes in the margins of the slides and questions on what she’d like me to focus on during the review.
I’ve come to love this approach.
I realised the QBR itself is not the important part of the meeting. The conversation with the client is. And the better informed and prepared everyone is about the content, the more successful and impactful the business review will be.
My advice is to circulate the QBR a few days in advance. Summarise important points and let attendees know about any pre-reading or preparation required. Encourage them to reply with questions or feedback so you can incorporate those into your presentation or agenda before the big day.
Go one extra step with a phone call to your main point of contact. Confirm requirements for the meeting, ask their thoughts on the review and if they have any questions. You’ll sleep better knowing you’re fully aligned with your client on the review content and done everything you can to avoid surprises on the day.
If everyone has received the QBR and read it, then you can spend less time talking about the boring past and more time talking about the exciting future.
9. Read the room
So often I see quarterly business reviews flop, not because of the content, but because the key account manager failed to read the room. They’re so focused on getting through all the slides that they don’t notice people fidgeting, having side conversations, playing with their phone or staring out the window. These are classic signs your audience is tuning out.
Watch reactions carefully and let them guide your review. If you’re losing their attention, here are some ways to get your audience re-engaged.
- Skip it. Don’t dwell on the slide if it’s clear no-one is really interested – move on to the next one. They’ve got copies – they can always read it later.
- Don’t read the slides. People can read the screen as well as you. Let the slides speak for themselves and instead tell a story, share some insights or add some context that brings perspective to the information.
- Audience interaction. Call on individuals and ask a question, invite their opinion or to share their experience. If you’re presenting the review by webinar make frequent use of surveys, chats and polls.
- Change your pacing. Talk fast through information people already know, slow down when you want to encourage discussion and use silence to amplify important points.
- Alternate your volume. A constant tone is dull. Lift your voice to a higher volume for important points. A lower voice for drama. Don’t be afraid of emotion. Show your personality. Be animated. Let your audience know you’re invested in this business review, and it’s worth their attention. Just don’t go over the top – it’s not a children’s TV show.
- Move around. If you’ve been sitting down, stand up. If you’re standing up, move to the other side of the room. Changing the physical space shifts your energy and reminds people to focus on you.
- Go off-script. During the review, all sorts of things will go through your head. If something pops up that’s relevant to the matter at hand, then go ahead and say it. It’s more important to contribute constructively to the conversation than it is to stick to the script. You might be reminded about results other clients have achieved, past experiences, product roadmaps, articles or books you’ve read or even new ideas that just occurred to you.
- Share an anecdote. Often during a review I’ve shared a funny story or observation to break the ice after an introduction or to cut the tension after a heated exchange. Or simply to add a little colour to a particular topic in the quarterly business review. These can be personal or business, your experience or someone else’s. I might embellish for a punchline or a better story.
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- Don’t call it a QBR. Use an alternative description that inspires and better reflects the objectives of your meeting.
- Keep it short. 30 minutes to review the past, and 30 minutes to plan the future. No more than 15 slides. Move surplus data to an Appendix.
- Tell the QBR as a story. Find the narrative in the data. Tell a new, unexpected story of what is, what could be and how you are the guide that will get your client to the promised land.
- The Rule of Three. Working memory holds up to 9 items of data for 30 seconds. Improve recall by chunking your insights into groups of three short, powerful messages.
- Use pictures. Humans remember pictures better than words. Use variety of charts, images, diagrams and icons to communicate your ideas.
- Stick to strategy, not tactics. Keep the QBR a high-level review on supplier performance, return on investment, progress towards goals, potential roadblocks and emerging opportunities. Schedule separate time for operational matters or your QBR will dissolve into a problem-solving and complaint resolution mess.
- Make it an event. Make sure your client knows the QBR isn’t another meeting that could have been an email. Generate buzz with a series of emails showcasing the objectives of the QBR and invite A-list guests – those with authority to ensure a strategic review where decisions get made.
- Send the QBR in advance. Send the review to participants before the presentation and ask for comments. If everyone is better prepared you can spend less time in the meeting on the past and more time planning for the future.
- Read the room. Watch your audience’s reaction for signs you might be losing them. Use techniques like audience participation, pacing, volume and humour to re-engage them.
Quarterly Business Reviews are the greatest opportunity an account manager has to demonstrate the value they and their company bring to their client’s business. If you:
- Invest the time in preparation;
- bring new and interesting insights to the conversation to keep it fresh;
- Collaborate with your client on objectives that make a positive impact and get results.
You’ll have a successful Quarterly Business Review that will be the highlight of your client’s calendar.
What do you think about QBRs? Are they useful? Any advice on how to improve them? Let me know in the comments.