A friend of mine invited me to a client meeting of his, and the meeting could be described in one word: meltdown. It was a disaster from the word go, and as I watched the dreadful scene unfold, it made me think of key ways to make client meetings productive, pleasant, and even fun. If you’re a freelancer, a creative professional, or anyone who meets with their clients regularly, here’s a list of ideas that can really turn those meetings around:
1) Learn People Skills. I’ve often said that people skills are more important than the skill it takes to do your job. I’m not sure if there’s a job on the planet where you don’t have to engage with human beings at some level, so you better learn to make those moments successful.
2) Learn to Read the Room. I’ve been in client meetings where nervous freelancers wouldn’t stop talking, constantly interrupting the client, and dominating the conversation. They weren’t paying attention to body language, eye contact, or other physical cues. In one meeting a designer only wanted to talk about himself, and in spite of the client being obviously bored, checking his phone, looking around the room, and finally trying to interrupt, the guy just kept on talking. The client finally said, “Excuse me, but I need to go call my wife.”
He never came back to the meeting.
3) Make Notes. If a client is talking, chances are you should be taking notes. I had a client once that at the end of the meeting, asked me to summarize what we discussed. Whew! I was glad I brought my notebook.
4) Don’t Mistake a Client for Your Best Friend. Except in rare cases, your client is your client, not your pal. I was in a meeting once that was going really well, so a writer assumed he was now best friends with the client. He started asking personal questions. He launched into a discussion about great writers. He started talking about his vacation. Everyone else in the room was visibly uncomfortable – especially the client.
5) Don’t Lecture. Many creative people mistake a client meeting for an opportunity to show how smart they are. Certainly we want every participant to speak from their expertise, but don’t start lecturing the group. There’s a big difference between a conversation and a lecture – and sometimes our passion for a subject pushes us over the line. But it’s a line you should never cross.
6) Let the Client Lead. The client is paying the bills, and it’s his or her project we’re working on, so let them set the pace and atmosphere of the meeting. Even if you’re presenting, give them the opportunity to speak first, set the stage, and present their perspective. That conveys respect, and quickly gains the confidence of a client.
Keep in mind that each of these ideas can be beneficial in any meeting, but in client meetings the stakes can be high, there’s often more pressure, and results matter. So this list can be particularly critical in those encounters.
If I would stress what I consider the most important idea, it’s simply people skills. The ability to make friends, let people talk, make them feel comfortable and inspire them is a remarkable thing – and it can be learned. The key is awareness, and you learn that skill from being sensitive to people around you. Learn their habits, their “tells” (as poker players say), and how they respond.
That skill will overcome almost any challenge, obstacle, or difficulty to the project.