I was once asked by one of our Corporate Sales Managers to attend a client meeting with our then largest customer. I thought I was meeting with the client and one of their team, so there would be four of us with me and my colleague.
This was a very big corporate client so trying to get meetings with people was no always easy, to say the least. I’d managed to get one meeting with the head of this division, and that was it. On questioning, my well-intentioned sales manager always gave me explanations and reasons why the project was going well and why I didn’t really need to get in there and meet with them. I do remember that this didn’t sit well with me, but I was being blocked by the client and by my own team so there wasn’t a lot I could do that wasn’t going to rock the boat in some way.
So, I was glad that this meeting had been set up and I can’t remember the exact briefing given to me by the sales manager, but what I expected and what I actually experienced in this meeting were poles apart.
I walked into an ambush.
Not only was there a sea of faces around the board table, but they had also brought in some of my own technical team who had been seconded to their offices for this project, all without my knowledge.
So then, right before a room full of the client’s team, and in front of some of my own team, I was publicly flogged.
It was excruciating and humiliating.
What happened next?
- I took a hit until my client had fully vented and there was nothing left. I remember vividly that the department head let rip with a level of detail that I would never have been across nor expected to be across as the CEO. The fact that I was unprepared at even a high level was something I had to address with the corporate sales manager after, but that’s another story… I waited until the client had thrown every last comment at me and had nothing left. It was only then that I could talk.
- Lesson: Always let the client vent, uninterrupted.
- I took it all on board. I didn’t argue, justify or mitigate what had been said. I made notes and also made a commitment to review and address their issues within the week.
- Lesson: It’s all very real to your client as it’s their perspective and what they are experiencing, so take it ALL on board and follow it ALL up.
- After that, there was little else to say. The client was visibly calmer than when the meeting started and way more agreeable, and I suspect a little bit embarrassed about playing their hand and showing how stressed their clients were making them.
- Lesson: We all have someone we are accountable to, and that can be very stressful sometimes.
- Just as the meeting concluded I pulled aside my public flogger and asked if I could have a word with him. In a personal way I apologised for not being across all these issues and totally empathised with what he was going through with their clients (it was our software that was used to deliver solutions to their clients). The fact I hadn’t been fully briefed by the sales manager was another issue, based on his well-intentioned belief that he could manage this ‘scenario’ on his own, but remarkably the department head had seen evidence of that, and empathised with the position he had placed me in.
- Lesson: We are all people, and business is built on relationships. We need to be professional and real at the same time. AND we need to fix problems when we say we will.
After this debacle, I was able to have regular meetings with this client, and had multiple levels of my own team plugged into the account management structure. And their business continued to grow with us along with the relationship.
My worst-ever client meeting produced many lessons that can be applied in many situations to produce a good outcome.