Managing the First Client Meeting

YOU'RE MEETING WITH a prospective client for the first time. Your only prior contact with the person has been a few emails and a brief telephone call. After introductions have been made and business cards exchanged, you pull out your laptop, fire up PowerPoint and start your sales pitch – regional offices, qualified team, services or products offered, etc… This scenario is played out time and time again when selling professional services. The problem is that a solution is being offered before there is an understanding of the prospective client’s business. Nothing good can come from this. Even if you propose the right solution, you may be missing out on a much bigger opportunity. Or worse, the solution you’re proposing may be wrong. As professionals we know the importance of understanding the client’s needs – we’ve read the books, attended seminars, participated in training, heard it from our managers. But this doesn’t stop us from offering a premature solution. The justifications (or excuses) are many. It’s a sales meeting and we’re expected to sell. The client wants to hear what we’ve got. I have to take every opportunity to sell. These responses have a common theme - a misunderstanding of what selling is. Selling is not about talking. Talking is an important part of selling, but talking too much or at the wrong time is a great way to turn a prospect into a client for one of your competitors.

Selling professional services requires a new approach. A simple change in the way you manage the first client meeting can have a dramatic impact. The BRACES process is a model for the first meeting: build rapport with the other person, ascertain in detail the client’s requirements, confirm your understanding, explain or explore how you can help, and finally seek their commitment to move to the next stage in their buying process.

Build Rapport How to open the meeting? One simple and effective guideline for starting the first meeting is to remember that the other person probably has four questions on their mind:

  • Who are you?
  • What is this all about?
  • How long will it take?
  • What’s in this for me?

Have a very specific plan as to how you are going to position yourself, your company and the meeting by answering these (usually unspoken, but very real) questions. This is the process of building rapport with the client. Keep the opening brief – maybe 5 minutes. Resist the temptation to go into too much detail. If the client starts asking questions about your service, tactfully changing the conversation: “…to focus on things that are most interesting to you and your organisation, would you mind if I first ask you a few questions?” If presented in the right manner, you’ll be on your way to building trust.

Ascertain / Confirm Take the next 30 to 40 minutes to understand as much as you can about the prospective client - their business environment, their plans for the future, how they are going to achieve their objectives, their risks, etc… The only way to do this is to ask questions. Ask three types:

  1. Business questions to identify the client’s unresolved problems which can be an opportunity for your service.
  2. Expertise questions to demonstrate your competence and knowledge of their industry.
  3. Commercial questions to understand the client’s decision-making criteria and process, money or budgetary issues, timing requirements, and alternatives to your solution.

Once you have a firm understanding of their business and how you can help, take the time to summarise (Confirm) your understanding. Ask if there is anything else you should know. You may find that you missed an important piece of information.

Explain Don’t diminish all the goodwill you’ve created so far during the meeting by launching into a hard-sell. Take a consultative selling approach. Try something like this: “What I would like to do now is to tell you about how we have helped other clients in a similar position and the benefits we have brought to them.” You’re being positive, yet assertive.

When presenting your solution differentiate yourself from the competition. Your message must be relevant and designed to give them a reason not only to listen but to take action. Follow each statement with a benefit. To find the benefit, ask yourself: what does this mean to the client; why is it important to them; or how will it help their business? By taking a statement and "pairing" it with a benefit, your message will be relevant - and should be of great value to the client.

Seek Confirmation The objective of this phase is to get the client to commit to action. In other words, get the prospect involved in the buying process – but involved at a level and pace with which they are comfortable.

There are two approaches. One is basic. Simply ask: “Based on our experience, the best way forward it to meet with your technical people. Can we organise this for sometime next week?” Another way is to offer alternatives: “We could go forward either way. We can meet with your people or you can come along to our seminar and we can meet again after that. Which would you prefer?” In both scenarios, you are asking a simple question. There could be hesitation on their part, but if you’ve been successful in the building rapport, ascertaining, confirming and exploring stages – the client usually volunteers the commitment.

Not surprisingly you may feel uncomfortable when you use the BRACES process for the first time. It’s a natural tendency when you hear a client talk about a problem to immediately jump in with “how we can help”. It’s also easier talking about your product or service, then the client’s business where you may not have in-depth industry knowledge. But follow the process. It works. Both you and the prospect will feel different at the end. A partnership will start to form where you are on the way to becoming their “trusted advisor”. Practice. You may not master the process on your next sales call, but don’t worry, you’re developing new skills. Soon you will be able to start a meeting with maximum impact. You’ll know when you have enough information. You are able to summarise quickly. You will move the discussion forward. You’ll get the client’s commitment.



Be on time Some people think it’s perfectly acceptable to be 10 or 15 minutes late to an appointment. Be careful, the person you’re meeting with may not see it this way. Some people think that a 10:00 am meeting means starting at 10:00 am – not the time that you're supposed to be rushing to the receptionist. By being late, the first impression you may be creating is one of a person who can’t even get to a meeting on time. Don’t let your credibility be questioned before you even have a chance to meet the client. Plan accordingly - arrive 5 minutes before the scheduled meeting.

Plan for the meeting How you will open the meeting, the areas you aim to explore, some key questions you want to ask – three important elements which you need to give some thought to before the client meeting. But don’t take planning it too far. Don’t pre-determine what you should try to sell to the prospect. They may have given you insight over the phone, but such an early focus down a particular path can lead to potential opportunities being missed. Focus your planning on what you will ask, not what you will sell.

Avoid the pounce You’re asking the right questions, the client is opening up and all of a sudden they mention a “problem” which you know you can solve. Your natural tendency is to tell them then and there how you can help. This is the pounce. Not only are you presenting a solution prematurely, but you’re stopping the prospect from telling you more about their needs. Instead of immediately launching into a sales pitch – make a note of the opportunity. Continue to ask questions. Dig deeper. Once you have a complete picture then explore a way forward presenting your solution through a compelling and relevant message.

Manage your impression You never get a second chance to make a good first impression. It’s true. People are never more sensitive to one another when they meet for the first time. Consciously or subconsciously we’re evaluating the other person. Whether a social gathering or business meeting, if you get off to a poor start, you may never fully recover. Give some thought and practice, to how you open your meetings, particularly the first one. Make sure the image you present builds trust with the prospect. You want them walking away believing you are comfortable, confident and in control.