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Monday, November 27, 2006

Preparing for your first customer meeting

The first meeting with a customer often carries a long way in your being able to build a strong relationship. Here are some things I would do, in preparation for the first meeting with a customer:

  • Research the customer - If the customer has a website, read their product/service offerings. When you visit the customer, instead of saying "Tell us what you do" - rephrase it as, "Based on what I researched, your company is involved in X,Y and Z. I would be keen to hear your perspective on where the company is headed". You would be surprised how many sales people I know who walk into a customer meeting with absolutely no idea what they do.
  • Treat Research as 'input' not 'output' - As an extension to the above, do not conclude on what a customer does, simply by research. It is important to ask the customer about their perspective, since it is often more detailed (and sometimes, rather different) than a web report. Doing research is showing respect to the customer - that you want to know their business. But don't use it to put words in your customer's mouth.
  • Research their competition- I remember walking into a meeting with a large service provider in Canada. The first question they shot across was "Before we engage with you, we want to know if you understand our space. Tell us, who you think our competition is". Fortunately, we were well prepared for that question. Had we not been, we would have lost respect that very moment
  • If your customer is a public company, read their 10K reports - if you don't have time for the entire report, read the summary, at the least. It gives you valuable information about their pain points, their competition and more
  • Keep an account map ready to fill in - One of the most important things in first level meetings is to assess who's who across the table. You will have the 'paper pushers' - those who talk a lot, but have little standing in the decision process, the 'gatekeepers' - who by the designated folks to keep vendors at arm's length so that the real decision makers are not harassed, the 'trusted lieutenants' who affect the decision process and 'the decision makers'. In large organizations, it is critical for you to know who you are speaking with and how the organization is charted out. This will ensure you spend the right amount of energies opening the right channel
  • Keep a list of key questions to ask - Many people think asking customers about anything is a bad thing. Not so. If you need to know an organization chart, ask away. If you need to know some product details, ask away. At best your customer will avoid a direct response, but more often than not, it works.
  • Make sure you have updated business cards - avoid scratching out titles/details before handing over your card. I've seen people scratching out titles that say "Director" to "Sr. Director" and then pass on to the customer. Really, does it matter to the customer or are you stroking your ego ?
  • If possible, create a targetted presentation - research the customer space and modify your generic presentation to have information that you think the customer is interested in. If you are not sure about some solutions, create a 1 pager with a summary of such solutions - if the customer shows interest, get into it, otherwise, move on
  • Put your best foot forward - I cannot re-iterate how important it is to completely impress the customer at the first meeting. If you think there is someone in your team who can help with this, make sure s/he comes along. This is also why I believe that the best people in a company need to have a field responsibility. You will not believe how many times I have heard "Oh, yes, Joe is a great technical guy, but he should be involved only when the customer relationship blooms more" - while I understand that the best guys cannot be available for every first level meeting, for the important ones, make sure they are. You never know how a meeting turns, and having him there is better than saying "Oh yes, we have all the expertise, but let me get back to you on that"
  • Keep a list of the 'pain points' - any customer has things in his own product that he is proud about. At the same time, any customer has pain points that need to be addressed. As you talk to the customer, keep filling these in. You need to address how you will solve his pain-points.
  • Make sure you are 10 mins ahead of time but not 1 hour ! - Make sure you are there 10-15 mins ahead of time. But not a full hour ahead! If you are an hour ahead, unless you have an existing relationship, don't call the customer or press him to start soon. If you do, more likely that the customer will need to re-arrange his current commitments or just curtly ask you to wait it out. In any case, an hour ahead is better than a minute late. I've seen senior executives turn cold during the meeting because they waited 5 mins in the conference room and you were not there.
  • Ask for business - many people I know shy away from asking for business. You are not there for a personal beer party. You are there for business. And always remember that a customer will give you business only if it solves a problem for them. So it is a two way street. Never shy from asking for business.
  • Make sure you create a minutes of meeting (MoM) with a clear action plan for followup. Also make sure that this MoM is distributed to the customer for validation with clear indication on what was discussed, what is the action result, who is the owner for an action and a due date by which it will be addressed.


  1. It seems you've encountered a customer's misunderstanding on technologies :) You speak in a very edifying way.

  2. Ops, this post was ment for the IMS WiMAX article.

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