Customer Meetings That Count

"I hate my job!" blurted my friend. His statement left me puzzled as to how someone who was so successful could so dislike his job. I knew that he was respected by his peers, and that he had established a track record for increasing his business at a record rate. Puzzled, I continued to quiz him regarding the specifics of his dislike for his job. "It's the customer meetings", he admitted sheepishly, "I'm always at a loss preparing for such a meeting, and concerned that I'm being intrusive and wasting the customers time...". Assuring him that the mere suggestion of a customer meeting has brought many men and women to their knees, I started to take a closer look at the elements of effective customer meetings. While there's no "cookbook recipe", there are specific steps that can be taken to make customer meetings successful.

Call ahead.

Do not drop in. Do you like it when someone interrupts your business day? If you do, you're in the minority . Calling ahead ensures that you'll be there at a time that's convenient for your customer. Also, know how your customer prefers to communicate. I once had a customer who absolutely detested using the phone. It would take her days to respond to messages on her voice mail. She was, however, diligent about reading and responding to her e-mails. Guess how I communicated with her? There are some people who prefer to receive messages by fax. Personalize your request for a meeting in the communication method that works best for your customer. Be prepared to offer several available dates and times for your meeting.

Prepare an agenda.

Fax or e-mail the agenda well in advance of your meeting. This gives your customer the opportunity to see (and get excited!) about your meeting. This also gives him the opportunity to add any additional agenda items to the list. If your meeting includes a demo, attach any literature regarding the product you are demonstrating to the agenda. Include a timeline on your agenda tells who will be speaking on what subject and for how long. If any additional people are accompanying you to the meeting, attach their biographies as well. All this attention to detail sends a message that you value your customer's time, and that you're providing lots of "bang for their buck".

Focus on the customer's requirements.

Your meetings should always be about your customer's needs, rather than about what you're selling. The most important meeting you'll ever have is the gathering of customer's requirements. It's critical to get a precise and documented reading of customer requirements. Even if you walk out of the meeting with total clarity regarding the requirements, you will still need to fax or send e-mail to the customer for validation. When, and only when you receive the validation, can you conduct a meeting demonstrating how your product/services specifically meets his requirements. Be sure to include examples of how you've met similar customer requirements.

Practice the niceties.

Saying you're not good at small talk is not going to "cut it". You always need to warm-up your audience. Even the shyest individual can learn to make small talk. There's the weather ( too hot, too cold, etc.), sports (how about them Giants?), upcoming holidays (have you done your shopping yet?). Check the morning paper before you leave for the meeting. Often there's a survey noted (90% of people have a fear of flying) that you can use as a conversation opener. While you don't want to waste the customer's time, you do want to put him at ease before you start thebusiness part of the meeting.

Take meeting minutes.

I believe taking minutes to be one of the most critical parts of any meeting. Preferably you will have someone with you to take minutes as you conduct the meeting. Let the customer know that you will be taking minutes and that you will send him a copy of the minutes for his review. This will ensure agreement of discussions that took place at the meeting. Be sure, of course, to send the neatly transcribed meeting minutes to your customer on a timely basis! Maintain a file of all meeting minutes. They can provide the "history" you need at a future date.

Practice closure.

Always leave enough time for a question and answer session at the end of your meeting. It's perfectly acceptable not to have the answer for every single question you are asked. Just be sure to prepare an action list noting who will be responsible for the answer, and the date that the person will provide the information. Note, in writing, any dates and actions that are relevant to the customer. Schedule your next customer meeting before you leave the office. And finally, even if the meeting was a perhaps just a wee bit combative, smile, shake hands, and thank him for his time.

Excellent meeting skills separate the men from the boys, and the women from the girls. Meetings are a critical part of any successful business effort. And while you may never love conducting meetings, you can learn to hold meetings that count. Conducting professional, effective, interesting meetings will give you and your business a competitive advantage. The best compliment I've ever received from my customers was how much they enjoyed meeting with me. I wish the same compliment to you!