Question: I've just scheduled our first meeting with my new customer - amazing! However, I've no idea what I should be doing in that first meeting. Any advice?
The first meeting (first in this instance meaning post-sales, so the contract is already signed) with a new customer/client is always a little strange: you don't know each other at all; it might all be a Zoom call so it's a little harder to gauge the mood in the room; no one knows who is in charge of the meeting for taking notes or even setting an agenda; and you probably still don't know exactly what the client is looking for or the actual problem they're hiring you to solve - it may not be what they told you it was.
However, it's a really important meeting to get right - you're going to be working closely with these people for a period of time, so getting off on the right foot can make for a much smoother project.
Outcomes from a first meeting:
When I have a first meeting with customers, the outcome(s) that I want include:
- Understanding the problem as fully as possible - the reality on the ground right now, in as much detail as is possible.
- Why they couldn't fix it themselves - in a nice way, not a 'how can you not figure this out!?!' way.
- Is the problem they hired me for actually the problem they have?
- Who are the key people to talk to in the company - who's going to push my project internally?
So in order to help you plan, run, and get the above outcomes from this meeting, here are a number of tips.
Before the meeting:
- If there is no agenda, put one together yourself and circulate it as a draft - say that you're open to changes but take the initiative and put together a provisional one. This could be as simple as an introduction, a section where you ask the customer describes the issue their having, and a conclusion where you summarise the meeting and note any tasks that have arisen.
- If you want, or you feel it's relevant, you can include a little description of yourself and the work you do in general, but that's optional.
- For yourself - do some background work understanding the customer and their industry so that you can ask more specific questions in the meeting (if you think they're needed). Even if you don't fully understand the area, a little preparation goes a long way.
During the meeting:
- Start by introducing yourself and say hello to every person at the meeting - if you're going to work together closely for the next number of weeks or months, building some rapport at the start is crucial. Ask them about themselves and what they do - they're people too! It also allows you to figure out who is important to you in the project both in terms of knowledge and access - for example, who do you go to if you've a technical issue? Use this meeting to start understanding this.
- The customer should be doing most of the talking in this meeting - not only do people like talking about themselves, but it's the best way for you to understand the problem. It also helps understand what the customer thinks about the problem too.
- As I said earlier, the problem they actually have might not be the problem they hired you to solve. This is really important to find out as soon as possible and this meeting is the earliest moment to find that out.
- Try and understand the problem in as broad a sense as possible - try and ask questions that don't require a 'yes/no' responses. Let the customer talk!
- But try and moderate the conversation too: if they start talking about an unrelated issue, let them speak, but try and bring it back to the subject at hand whenever appropriate.
- Try not to make any firm commitments to anything (within reason) at this meeting, the goal of this meeting is to just to understand the customer and their needs. Obviously, if you know you can provide a solution, say that; but it's ok to hedge and say that you need to check something out with engineering/support etc. first too.
- Ask far more questions than the customer does and listen instead of talking - you may not get a chance to do this in the future, so make the most of it while you can.
- Finish up the meeting summarising what they said: it helps clarify your understanding and allows one last time for a customer to add any necessary detail. At this point, or just before, you can start mentioning the tools you use (task management software for example), any access you might need etc.
After the meeting
- Take notes as soon as possible, and as comprehensive as possible. You'll forget more the longer you wait to do this. If the client consents, you can record the conversation to help with this.
- Send on a list of tasks or questions (including scheduling of next steps and meetings) from those notes to all attendees - no one wants to do this, so take the initiative!
If you do all of the above, you'll have a solid start to the project.