How To Handle Client Meetings – Part One

Only last week I was on holiday, chilling out, wearing skimpy shorts, sunning my body on an impossibly relaxing beach while I replenished my mental faculties. You’ve all been there lately so I don’t need to paint any more of the picture. Of course, it was raining when I returned to England and my diary was full of client meetings that had been booked for me in my absence. One of these meetings took place yesterday and on this occasion, I was the client.

A salesperson came to sell me some advertising and, although she was 20 minutes late for the meeting, she had called in advance to warn me – so she won a couple of brownie points there. However, once she had arrived she was incredibly over-confident (to the point of pushiness), failed to apologise for being late and proceeded to get my name wrong twice before forgetting it all together with a little later. Finally, when she felt it was time to close the deal, she held my gaze for so long that it started to make me feel uncomfortable – even though I’d signalled my discomfort by glancing away a couple of times. Am I just a wimpy marketing guy, or was I right to perceive her prolonged stare as a hostile gesture? Whatever her tactics were (if indeed she had any), they didn’t work on me. She didn’t get my business and so lost a potential client and all of the money and goodwill that might have followed.

This little one-to-one got me thinking about client meeting etiquette – just what is the best way to approach these occasions? I’ve outlined some of the different types of client meeting below, along with my ideas about the best way to cope with them. I also hope to show you how to achieve the desired outcome in every meeting you will ever have. Of course, the prerequisite of any meeting is that you have the desired outcome in mind. Without a clear objective, meetings rarely succeed in being more than chaotic get-togethers where lots of people talk at the same time about different things.

This article is split into 3 parts. The first part published today deals with:

Part 2 of this article was published on Wednesday this week and covers Taking Clients to a Restaurant and Working with Clients on a Day to Day Basis.
Part 3 was published on Friday and covers Socialising with Clients After Hours and Sleeping With Clients.

1. Client meetings at the office during office hours

This is the standard type of meeting, especially when you’re introducing yourself and your company to a new, potential customer. Your client comes to see you (or you go to them) for a limited number of reasons: so that you can pitch your product or services; to discuss other possible partnership opportunities, or to give them an overview of what you do in preparation for a long term commercial relationship.

It’s amazing how the little things like looking and smelling clean, being on time and dressing appropriately can make such a big difference. First impressions do last and getting each of these little things right will make a positive contribution to your overall presentation.

You have to assume that everyone else your client sees has presented themselves perfectly. Here is a list of do’s and don’ts which will help to distinguish you from the rest of the field:

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DO take a moment to collect yourself and make sure that your breathing is deep and regular which helps to calm any nerves you may be feeling.

Incidentally, if you suffer from sweaty palms, there is a way around it. The reason your palms sweat when you’re nervous is that your breathing is likely to be shallow which in turn means your blood supply isn’t reaching the extremities – namely your hands. Your palms aren’t sweaty because you’re hot – it’s because they’re cold. The cure is simple and although it sounds vaguely silly, I promise you, it really works. Cup your hands together in front of you and imagine that you’re holding a ball of fire. Really feel the heat. Your hands are one of the body areas where you can change the temperature just by thinking about it. Result: no more sweaty palms, instead of a pair of dry hands poised to shake with the client.

DO think of an ice-breaker, a conversation starter that shows that you’re perceptive to your surroundings.

Talking about the weather is not really good enough. For example, comment on the height of the ceilings, the paintings on the wall or about how comfortable the waiting room chairs are.

DO NOT moan about how packed the bus or tube was on the way there; as in your opinion of the slenderness of the receptionist’s silk-stockinged legs – keep it to yourself.

By the way, never piss the receptionist, Secretary or PA off at any stage in the proceedings: these people wield enormous power and can make all the difference when it comes to getting another meeting or even communicating with the client ever again. Be good to them.

DO get everyone’s name. When you get into the meeting itself, make sure that you introduce yourself to everyone and that you get everyone’s names in return.

This can be quite tough sometimes, particularly if there are a lot of people present, but there are a few tricks that you can use. The reason that you often forget or even fail to register people’s names is that you’re much more concerned with the impression you yourself are making, rather than worrying about everyone else. Relax. Be confident. If you look and feel good, you’ll have no problems, so concentrate on getting those names.

First, try to get business cards from all of the attendees. This will help both during the meeting and later on. Quickly scan each name and associate it with the job title before proffering your hand to the next guy. Second, if your clients are already seated when you enter the room, make a little diagram of the table and seating arrangements. That way, you can assign a name (and role) to each seated person and it’ll make your life easier. The third trick you can use to remember names is to repeat them, not just to yourself, but out loud. The way to do this without looking like a muttering idiot is to combine the name repetition with the handshake. See below.

DO shake hands with everyone… but not too hard.
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The handshake has its origins in the time when most trades proceeded without money changing hands. The open palm would be outstretched to show that the deal was being done in good faith, that it would be honoured and that there were no weapons being concealed by either party.

Nowadays, the handshake may be used to judge the intentions and state of mind of the other person – or to influence their own judgements about you. For example, too long and firm a grip and you risk seeming unnecessarily superior or hostile. Too short and limp and you risk being perceived as a walkover. The aim then is to shake hands for a period of between 3-4 seconds and to give a firm, but not too strong a handshake.

Generally, the handshake comes after you’ve swapped names with the other person and here’s where you can repeat their name openly. Say the client’s name as you’re taking their hand. For you, this gives the name a chance to sink into your mind and, believe it or not, the fact that you’ve repeated their name is subconsciously pleasurable for the client. If you really want to be a don, shake the client’s hand with your right hand, repeat their name while looking into their eyes and, with your left hand, gently clutch their right forearm. This is even more reassuring and can be used to show real friendliness if done with charm and sincerity. Bill Clinton was the master of this, instantly putting the recipient at ease. Be careful though – if you use this technique too much it can convey falseness and even the smarminess associated with a certain type of politician.

DO put on a show of conviviality and confidence but DO NOT assume things.

FBI trainees are told on their first day never to ASSUME anything. The acronym means “Never make an ASS out of U or ME”. In business, this means to treat everyone with cordiality and respect. Even if some oily geek in the corner is heckling your presentation, take it with good grace. Be particularly careful if someone enters the meeting before you finish – it could be the chief executive or someone else who will authorise the deal you’re trying to close. Don’t be ashamed to stop mid-patter and ask for an introduction. Finally, always match your level of confidence and assertiveness with that person in the room who holds the most decision-making power. If you can gain their respect, you’re already three-quarters of the way to closing the deal.

2. Client Meetings at the office outside working hours

This kind of meeting is less common, but there’s a whole protocol to be mastered that should be part of anyone’s professional repertoire. Client meetings that take place at the office but outside working hours are arranged once in a while by many companies. They serve to schmooze current clients, give staff a free piss-up and, at the same time, they’re an invitation to potential clients to “network and get to know us”. Your job as an employee is to chat and charm, regale and remind while filling everyone’s glasses as soon as they’re half-empty. I’ve been to some great ones and some not so great ones. Here’s the low-down:

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At the start of the evening, DO welcome all the clients you know to the event, shake their hand (whilst saying their name, looking into their eyes and tapping them on the right forearm) and offer them some refreshments.

The clients are the centre of attention here, make them feel it. At the same time, don’t hog the client’s time and patience by talking to them all evening. A quick hello and sip of wine will suffice before you move on to the next group.

DO talk to as many people as possible but, whatever you do, DO NOT go crazy, liberally spread air-kisses or let the alcohol lure you into believing that you are a raconteur with the ability of Peter Ustinov.

Unless you really are Peter Ustinov, keep your stories concise and to the point (make sure there is a point) and don’t talk to just one client all evening. If there is a band present, regardless of how drunk you get, don’t take over the piano and launch into a Frank Sinatra number. Unless you’re really good, that is.

Don’t get drunk. Sorry, I mean DO NOT get drunk.

Do I really need to elaborate on this one? I know that you’re not paying for drinks and want to capitalise on the company’s largesse but you know better than anyone what can happen when you’ve had a few too many. Save it for the after-soiree at the pub with all your work colleagues. We all know our own limits but sometimes even this doesn’t help. Personally, if I’ve had a long day and haven’t eaten enough, even just a couple of glasses of wine can make me feel a little tipsy. If this happens to you, stop drinking. Move to the orange juice or soda water.

With or without alcohol, events like this are, by their very nature, less formal than meetings during the day. Inevitably, this means that you can talk to clients in a more intimate way. The client may mention that they don’t get out much because of the kids, or that they anticipate a long journey home. This is your cue that it’s OK to get a little more personal.

DO NOT get too personal too quickly. There’s a fine line between taking a healthy interest in someone and prying.

Also, this evening is not the time to start any big debates with the client about any of the following subjects in any combination: religion, politics, sex and death. Stick to small-talk unless you think that a client is flirting with you (see no. 6 below).

Finally, in all of this, DO remember what your objective is with each person.

If they are already a client then a quick chat about how things are (both personally and professionally) will probably suffice. If you’re talking to a potential client, don’t give them the hard sell – this isn’t the time or place for that. The fact that they are there in the first place means that they’re already considering working with you. And, if your company is doing a good job, your existing clients should be very happy to give the new customer a testimonial. This sort of recommendation is the most valuable of all.

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