Meeting a new client can be stressful. Despite the many times I have met new clients, I always get a little uneasy. I have deep experience in consulting, and I am generally likable. But you never know what can create a negative impression. It can sometimes be out of your control.
Some clients start with an attitude of not accepting you. They want to make you work at gaining their trust and desire to work with you. Even with clients that are more accepting, you can start in negative territory for meaningless things. They may misinterpret something you say. Someone may have just made them angry and by being the next person they see, you are guilty by association. The client may just not like the color shirt you wore that day.
There is no way to guarantee that you will create a good first impression. I have figured out a few things over the years that will improve your odds.
Be respectful but don’t try too hard
Not too long ago I was introduced to a new client. The salesperson prepped me for the meeting. One of the first things he said was, “This guy is good friends with our CEO.” That is always good information to have. But he said it as if to indicate that I should give this guy extra special attention. It is true. You never want a client to call the CEO to complain about you. But that is true whether they are his friend or not.
I treat every client with respect. I do not treat them better if they have a special relationship with someone in power. I have never been one to catch a picture on their desk of a fish they caught and pretend to be a fellow fisherman. I have commented and complimented someone on something they have in their office.
There is a big difference in finding something to strike up a conversation to learn a little bit about their human side and completely kissing up to them to try to gain their favor. The person being kissed up to can usually tell the difference too.
Do your homework
Most first meetings with a client are fact-finding. You are normally having a conversation to talk basics and learn a little bit about the client. That does not mean that you go in cold. Spend some time to learn about their company and their industry. What products and services to they provide? Know what they do and how they fit into their industry. Know their competitors and their strategic partners. If applicable, try to find out as much as you can about their supply chain and distribution process.
Do some research on the individual that you will be meeting with. Some call this stalking, but reviewing their LinkedIn profile, which they posted publicly is definitely not stalking. Reviewing their personal Facebook page and finding out where they live is definitely crossing the line.
The point is to learn as much as you can that is pertinent to the meeting. This allows you to take the conversation to a deeper level. The client will not have to spend valuable time educating you on basic information. They may even be impressed at your knowledge.
Listen to the client
Consultants often think they need to dominate the conversation to demonstrate their vast knowledge and experience. They may hear a snippet of the problem the client is experiencing and are ready to provide the solution. Many consultants come in with a solution before hearing the snippet.
The “one size fits all” solution rarely works. A solution that worked at a previous client likely will not fit here. Most clients want to be heard. They know you have experience. That is why they invited you in. But most clients look to consultants to solve their unique problems, not implement cookie-cutter solutions.
Ask the client probing questions based on your research and what they’ve already told you. Let them provide detail about the issues they are experiencing. Let them do 80-90% of the talking.
Don’t worry about the things out of your control
I once had a job interview where I was escorted from the lobby to the interviewer’s office. She let me go through the door first. I sat down and looked up and she had an odd look on her face. She said, “That’s where I usually sit.” I looked across and saw two chairs across from me. In my nervousness, I sat down behind her desk. I apologized, got up and sat on one of the other two chairs. We exchanged a nervous laugh and went on.
The rest of the interview went quite well. I ended up getting an offer and worked there for several years. If anything happens that jeopardizes your good first impression, put it behind you. Whether you were late to the meeting or a had a poorly worded introduction, move on. You may have started out flawed, but as long as the client does not kick you out of the office, you still have a chance. Prove yourself as a good consultant that wants to help.
If you do that right, by the time you get to the end of the meeting, the client may well have forgotten any negative feelings from the introductions.
Don’t get too cocky about a good first impression
Your first meeting may go better than you dreamed. The client likes you and calls back for another meeting, or even signs for some work. Keep in mind that a good first impression is a stepping stone. Every interaction with the client is a test. You may develop a more casual relationship with the client over time, but the client is still paying you for work. Every interaction with the client should be positive and something to build the relationship on.
You can sometimes win them back
I once had a first meeting with a client where everything that could go wrong did go wrong. My coworker and I ran into traffic on the way there and were ten minutes late. Once we got there and sat in the client’s office, my coworker assumed he and client were best of buddies. He did everything but invite himself over to meet the wife.
It was clear the client was not impressed. My coworker also did not read the room well, so the client’s lack of enthusiasm was lost on him.
We finished our discussion and the client was polite enough not to completely end the relationship there. Back at our office, I spoke to a partner about the experience. I said I would like a second shot at talking to the client without the coworker. I called the client and, without throwing my coworker under the bus, explained that the meeting did not go as planned. I asked if he would be willing to have another meeting with the partner and me.
The client actually seemed relieved. He wanted to work with our firm. But he clearly did not want to work with the coworker. We had a follow up meeting and the client was able to put the bad experience behind him.
A good first impression is very important. It creates the beginnings of a great relationship that you can continue to build on. A poor first impression is not always the end of the line. It may require a client with an open mind and some flexibility, but do not let it cause you to give up.
What do you do to ensure a good first impression with the client?
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.
If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com
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