How to Hold a Perfect First Meeting
Every long-term, trusted partner client relationship started with a single meeting. The genesis is almost always a brief conversation that, frankly, could have gone either way. Why does one first meeting lead to millions of dollars in revenues over many years, whereas another ends up with a “Let’s stay in touch” farewell at the door? Some of it is out of your control—some clients simply do not have a pressing need that you can meet. But much is in your hands. Your willingness to prepare for the meeting, your ability to build rapport and trust, and your skill at teasing out a potential issue that you can engage around will all heavily influence the outcome.
In this article I outline absolute best practices for handling that first meeting. The basic framework works whether it’s a brand new prospect or a new executive contact at an existing client. No two meetings are the same, so take this as a template that you will adapt to each particular client situation. To complement this framework I also have reviewed an excellent new book called Rainmaking Conversations, which you can read here.
First, keep in mind four key principles for holding great first meetings:
- Always show rather than tell. When you SHOW you give examples, illustrate with stories, and share best practices. When you TELL you describe how many offices you have, you assert how well you listen to clients, and you narrate.
- Evoke their curiosity. That is the secret to getting a second meeting. What can you make them curious about? How do you get them to lean across the desk and say, “I’d like to hear more about that…” or “I’d like to meet your colleague…”
- Prepare well, but don’t try to directly impress them with your preparation and assume you understand their real issues. Learn what their issues are–but don’t walk in and say, “Let’s talk about these three goals that I know you have…” Do it indirectly by asking questions about the implications of their stated strategy.
- Be a peer and ask for a commitment to take a small next step. Remember: Your clients need you as much as you need them. You must walk in as an equal, a peer. And, you must not unilaterally agree to take responsibility for all next steps–you must get a commitment from the client as well. Otherwise they will not be a fully engaged participant in the sales process.
Here is a template for holding perfect first meetings, divided into pre meeting, meeting, and post meeting strategies:
- Discuss the agenda in advance with the executive you’re meeting with and determine if there is a special topic or interest they would like to cover.
- Ascertain who will be there. You don’t want to be blindsided when you walk into a room with eight people sitting around a table, when you were expecting one!
- Clarify your colleagues’ precise roles, if others are going with you. Don’t bring more than 1 more person than the client is bringing.
- Select 2-3 client examples that you think will resonate with the prospect. Boil these down to 50 words, and memorize them. If you don’t memorize them you will end up taking way too long to describe them.
- Select a brief (50-100 words, no more) “point of view” that you can use as a conversation starter—perhaps an observation about how your other clients are reacting to a new regulatory framework, or about some new competitive strategies that you have been following.
- Research the executives you are meeting with and their business.
- Bring 4-5 thoughtful, even provocative questions to ask.
Goal 1: Build Rapport
- Use relevant, meaningful small talk as an icebreaker. Make it genuine, not something superficial you cooked up to sound good. Perhaps you have an acquaintance in common, or both once worked at the same company.
- Reset the agenda, which should be some variation of the following: Get to know each other, understand their agenda of key priorities, share some examples of recent, relevant work you’ve done with similar clients (by way of illustrating what you do and how you work with clients), and then decide if there is an issue worth exploring together and around which you should plan a next step.
Goal 2: Build Credibility
- Use one or two brief (50 word) client examples, saying something like this: “I think the best way to tell you about my firm is to describe a couple of recent engagements we’ve just completed…”
- Share a point of view about the client’s industry, competitors, or markets
- Ask thoughtful questions that implicitly demonstrate your knowledge of their issues (“I’m curious, how is your new international strategy impacting your approach to risk management…” “I’m curious, at the recent investors conference your CEO set out a pretty bold organic growth agenda…how is this going to impact your talent acquisition and management needs…”)
- Hold a conversation, don’t make a presentation or walk through PowerPoint slides
Goal 3: Uncover their needs and issues
- You need to discover if the client have a problem or opportunity that is important enough and urgent enough for them to reach out to an external service provider for help.
- Ask about the impact of current trends and events
- Highlight issues your other clients are facing
- Ask “intelligent” questions about their known, public strategy (be prepared, but don’t assume you know that this individual executive’s issues are!)
- Ask about their most important priorities, but please, don’t ask “What keeps you up at night.” It’s a cliché that salespeople have been using for 25 years!
- Ascertain the payoff of addressing the issue and the urgency
- Find out who “owns” the issue and who the economic buyer would be (you may not be talking to the economic buyer, and sooner or later you must meet that person if you to succeed)
- Ask about the key organizational constituencies which would be involved in a potential solution, or which need to be aligned before the client could move forward.
Goal 4: Get a Next Step
- Evoke the client’s curiosity to learn more. If you don’t evoke their curiosity, they won’t be motivated to meet again.
- Sum up the conversation and suggest a next step; or, ask the client—if you’re feeling confident—“Based on our discussion, what do you think would be a useful next step to further explore this?”
- Get an action commitment from the client as well. Don’t volunteer to do everything yourself. For a next step to have meaning, the other party must be commited.
- Debrief with your team afterwards. What did you learn? What are the next steps? What could you have done differently, either in terms of how you prepared for the meeting or how you ran the conversation?
Remember these first-meeting pitfalls:
- Overreaching and overselling. You’re trying to build a relationship—to establish some trust and credibility—not sell a project.
- Bringing lots of paper. When you sit down at a dinner party, do you pull out a PowerPoint presentation or do you start having an interesting conversation with the person next to you?
- Talking too much about you and your firm.
- Telling, rather than “showing” by using examples and stories. Don’t narrate, illustrate.
- Delving into “methodologies” too soon. Senior clients are usually uninterested in the specifics of your six-sigma algorithm or your change management cube. They want to know if you understand their issue and have experience in solving it.