How to Make Every Client Meeting a Powerful Experience

By Andrew Sobel

I’ve always been a little skeptical of “alternative” learning experiences which have you reciting Shakespeare, catching your colleagues as they fall backwards into your arms with their eyes closed, or sitting all day at a screen managing a computer simulation.

So I was more than pleasantly surprised when I sat in on a workshop with Col. Kevin Farrell (ret.) and Mike Chibbaro of Battlefield Leadership. Certainly, the qualifications of the workshop leaders were terrific—Kevin had served as a battalion commander in Iraq and a professor of military history at West Point, and Mike had been a senior partner at Ernst & Young.

What really grabbed me, though, was the overall experience of the day. Kevin and Mike immersed us in the pivotal battle of Gettysburg, which took place during the American civil war. They showed us the battle from the perspectives of key combatants, and illustrated how they reacted under changing conditions and unbearable pressure. There were interactive discussions, short vignettes about the battle, and videos. We had to apply what we were learning to our own leadership challenges. It was educational and entertaining. And, it transported me out of my usual check-your-email-constantly world. (They also offer onsite courses where you spend several days on the actual battlefield—an even more exciting experience than discussing the battle in a workshop).

What if you could make each and every one of your client meetings a truly engaging experience? Imagine your clients saying, “Working with them is different.” Wouldn’t it help differentiate you from your competition?

Let’s face it, most meetings aren’t that interesting or stimulating. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, a study of senior managers shows they spend 23 hours a week in meetings, up from less than 10 hours a week in the 1960s. 71% reported that their meetings are unproductive and inefficient. Here are some suggestions for turning your client meetings into memorable experiences for your clients.

First, I’ll share seven characteristics of a great client experience. Then, I’ll list practices that will help you differentiate your client meetings from the “unproductive and inefficient” (and boring) meetings that are the norm.

  1. Value. Has your time with the client helped them better understand how to improve their business? Without value, the “client experience” will be hollow. Whether you’re an employee or an external advisor, there is an implicit ROI calculation that all clients make. A single meeting may not achieve this, but there must be a discernable, positive pattern. For each meeting, ask yourself: Have we advanced our client’s goals?
  2. New Perspectives. This is related to Value but deserves its own mention. After your meeting, does the client feel their perspectives have been enlarged or positively changed? Do they look at their problems and opportunities in a new light? In my thousands of interviews with senior executives, this has often been mentioned.
  3. Education. Does the client feel they have learned on a personal level and/or that you have improved the skills and capabilities of their organization?
  4. Engagement. Do participants feel like active, involved participants in the process?
  5. Out of this world. Have you managed to pull your client out of their world, so to speak—to make them feel they have put some distance between themselves and their hectic, overscheduled life? I felt a bit like that at the Battlefield Leadership workshop I attended. I also feel that way at Disney World!
  6. Emotional Resonance. Are you connecting on a personal level with clients during your meetings? Are you engaging their emotions—their hearts—through the experiences you create?
  7. Entertainment. Have you created enjoyment and fun? This is not trivial: People learn more, for example, and are more open to new ideas, when they are having fun. Does anyone laugh at your meetings because of your use of humor?

Here are 12 ideas for how you could bring these seven characteristics to life:

  1. Co-creation: Can you partner more actively with the client to define both the overall relationship experience and individual interactions (e.g., joint account planning with you and the client, versus one-sided, behind-closed-doors planning).
  2. More dialogue: One way of enhancing the experience is to increase dialogue—both the amount, type, and breadth of conversations and topics covered. (e.g., come up with new, unexpected topics for your meeting agendas).
  3. New participants: Are there opportunities to bring new players into the engagement from the client side and from your side? (e.g., what participants could you invite who would inject new perspectives and ideas into your conversations?).
  4. Greater transparency: Is there an opportunity to increase the flow of communications and transparency around plans, programs, etc.? (e.g., more regular “agenda setting” conversations during your meetings?).
  5. New experience environments: Changing the physical environment alters relationship dynamics and increases intimacy. Can a broader variety of relationship environments be created? (e.g., take your client offsite, invite them to a conference with you, etc.).
  6. Exposing/discussing risk: A greater understanding of and transparency around risk can enhance the experience and increase value. This means have open discussions about what can go wrong, and how to mitigate those possibilities.
  7. Contrarian thinking: Most people talk about the same trends, the same flavor-of-the-month ideas. What if you surprised your client with points of view that go against the grain? Is there a topic where you could be a contrarian thinker for your client?
  8. Use of technology and multimedia: Use of varied communications tools can simultaneously entertain, engage, and create emotional resonance. Technology can be used to expand the scope of the client experience (e.g., to create virtual experiences)
  9. Client Forums: For an executive, learning from peers that have faced similar challenges can be a highly rewarding experience—and a great way for you to add value. It’s harder and harder to pull these off, since everyone seems to be doing them, but if you have some strong preexisting relationships and a strong value proposition for the group, it can work beautifully.
  10. Making it more personal: You achieve emotional resonance by exploring the personal/emotional side of things. This means asking how people feel not just what they think. It means talking about the personal implications of the issues at hand, not just the business impact.
  11. Better questions: More and better questions (what I like to call Power Questions) can change a client’s perspectives and leave them with the feeling, “That was different.”
  12. Use of humor: Humor is a universal lubricant. It’s a great way to help people relax–and be entertained. Make light of yourself or the situation you’re in, as opposed to making fun of others.

Think about an upcoming client meeting. What techniques or ideas would help make it a truly engaging and memorable experience?

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