How to ace a difficult client meeting

Have you ever dreaded going to a client meeting, knowing it was going to be really tough? It happens to all of us, and I have had my share of them. Some caused by my own actions, latterly in senior roles to take one for the team. I have learned some tactics over the years, which can not only make the experience less stressful, they can significantly improve the outcome.

Not long ago I was asked by a client to accompany her to a particularly worrying meeting. She wasn’t experienced in commercial negotiations and the prospect of facing her customer was causing her a lot of stress. Her service was at the leading edge of technology and admittedly the customer solution had been fraught with problems. She had gone well beyond her obligations to keep the customer happy but it had not been an easy ride. Email exchanges had been very terse.

In this situation, I would follow a very simple process which I have found immensely useful. In fact we did exactly this.

  1. Do your homework. If you haven’t done so already, draft a diary in note form of everything that happened. Include dates and details of calls, agreements, who was involved, what was done (and costs of work done but not invoiced). This is very helpful to brief everyone from your team attending the meeting and to quickly refer to in the meeting if you need facts to hand. Even this act of preparation is a big confidence-builder.
  2. People. Find out who is attending from the customer’s team. Do you know them? What is their history with the account etc.
  3. Agenda. If possible, find out their agenda or objectives for the meeting. This is sometimes more difficult because the real agenda may be hidden and they want the supplier in front of them for their own satisfaction.
  4. Assumptions (not). Above all, don’t make any assumptions on your part. My client was convinced that her customer was so dissatisfied she could be facing major repercussions. Customers will often be very aggressive by email and this can make the situation look very bleak. Try and take a rational view of what they are likely to want as the outcome.
  5. Scenario planning. Think of the alternative outcome scenarios. What would be the implications of each scenario for both supplier and customer. Decide where your red lines are, and what you can afford to concede if the going gets tough. Also plan what could be asked for in exchange. Consider the customer’s position too. Do they really want that worst-case outcome? Probably not, they will have to justify expense and time wasted internally if the worst happens. Usually they will want some face-saving outcome that makes them look good, so what is actually at stake here is often not money but personal reputation.
  6. The Meeting. Now we come to the actual meeting. I have always found it best to be as friendly as possible, banish all nerves and communicate as if this wasn’t the meeting we dreaded. This is vital, because humans are social creatures and it is hard to start with a genial conversation then turn nasty. Also, we don’t want to show our concerns because the reality may not be as bad as we think.
  7. Meeting Objectives. If they don’t immediately start by stating their objectives for the meeting, ask what they are. Never say what you think first! This sets the tone and the agenda for the remainder of the meeting, and it may not be what you expect.
  8. Find Common Ground. Find a way to agree on an outcome, even at a high level. That puts you on the same page as the customer – for example “putting the project back on track” is a shared outcome. How you do that is in the detail you are here to discuss.
  9. Collect Before Discussing. Put everything on the table before discussing. If there have been problems, ask them to list them and take notes but don’t respond. After they have had their turn, and you have confirmed everything has been tabled from their side, you can then list all the issues that you may have had that are either your or their responsibility. With everything listed, they can see that it was not as one-sided as they may have thought. You can also group similar issues together and discuss as a whole.
  10. Admit Mistakes. It’s OK to admit that there have been problems and challenges, even things that you could have handled differently. Don’t be defensive but don’t take responsibility for things you can’t control or that were the customer’s responsibility.
  11. Always Trade. Even in situations where you are at fault and have to put something right at your cost, you can ask for a reciprocal action in good faith. As GM of a software company, I was the final escalation point for severe customer service problems. Usually the customer would withhold maintenance payments until a problem was resolved. The trade here would be “If I authorise weekend working to rebuild your database to eliminate future problems will you authorise payment for the outstanding maintenance invoices?” If the customer is particularly upset a trade may not work, in which case don’t force the issue. In my experience people usually want the commercial relationship to get back on track and some trade will be acceptable – in fact an indicator that both parties want the matter resolved.
  12. Summarise. At the end of the meeting, verbally summarise what has been agreed and what actions will be taken by both parties.
  13. Debrief. Immediately after the meeting, debrief with your team in case there was something some of you missed.
  14. Follow Up. As soon as possible after the meeting, write to the customer thanking them for the opportunity to meet, for the frank and open discussions, and listing all actions, responsibilities and timescales. Sign off with a positive message such as “We look forward to getting the project back on track and continuing our business partnership.”

Staying calm, doing your homework, knowing when to keep quiet and when to say something will in most cases result in a far more successful meeting. Adding the professionalism of the above process means you can walk away knowing you have done the best you could, and the customer will respect you for that. Strangely, a well-managed problem resolution will often enhance your reputation with the client to an even higher level than if the problem had never occurred!

As it turned out, my client need not have been so worried. Her customer’s team had been using rather “corporate” language in their emails and their demeanour in the meeting was far more positive than we had expected. As a result, I felt brave enough to trade an offer of a free trial of another system in return for the customer releasing payment for a fairly substantial unpaid invoice. I was pleased to see that within weeks the project was back on track and the customer was being extremely supportive of my client. It was a good outcome for everybody – which is the ultimate objective anyway.