How to Question
The Arc of a New Client Meeting
New client meetings follow an arc:
- Learning about the client
- Sharing about your firm (only if asked)
Let’s take a look at each stage.
Opening – Setting the Tone + Getting Comfortable
The get-to-know-you-phase establishes the tone of the meeting and gives you a chance to catch your breath. Establish a personal connection to set a comfortable and relaxed tone. It’s important to meet on a human, person-to-person level, before jumping into the business-to-business connection.
Many professionals wonder if asking personal questions is appropriate in a business context. Obviously certain questions are off limits, like politics, religion, and other subjects that are commonly known to be sensitive. But breaking the ice by talking about personal interests, or noting something you learned about the client-to-be from online research on LinkedIn or Facebook, is perfectly acceptable.
Once I had a client begin a meeting the a campus architect by sharing that he’d seen she was interested in Rhododendrons on her Facebook page. The potential client spoke about her interests and architect shared his enthusiasm for gardening. That connection set the tone as relaxed and casual, and the rest of the meeting took on that tone.
Looking at a person’s LinkedIn page can shed light on what groups the person participates in, special interests, and mutual connections. These can also be helpful jumping-off points for intiating the conversation.
Learning About the Client
It’s critical to remember the purpose of the meeting. While most architects think that the reason for meeting a client-to-be is to secure work, or at a minimum come away knowing about upcoming projects, they are way off the mark.
The reason to meet with a prospective client is to determine if there’s a good fit. Is this the kind of client you want to work with? It helps to go in with a clear idea of what constitutes the “ideal client.” What are the qualities and characteristics that make for the perfect client for your firm? Is there a particular organizational culture, mission, structure, or size that your firm is best able to serve? Knowing this ahead of time helps to enter the meeting in the right frame of mind: meeting to decide if you want to work with this client, or check them off the list.
The first meeting is about learning about the prospects’ business strategies, issues, processes, and people. Note: it is not about projects. Learning about projects would be nice, but it’s really early in the relationship to ask a client-to-be to divulge. Remember that the prospect is checking you out, deciding if you and your firm are a good fit. Asking for project leads at this stage is like saying, “What’s it going to take to get you into this new car today?”
You have to earn the right to ask questions about projects and budgets. It’s not impossible that an initial meeting will result in leads, but it’s pretty unlikely. What you’re aiming for is building a relationship, so you can get to the stage where asking about projects is appropriate, and that may be several meetings down the road.
The most important reason for the initial meeting with a client-to-be is to determine if there is a fit and whether you want to take the next step in cultivating the relationship.