Meeting with a client for the first time can be overwhelming, but like anything in our careers, it is very exciting. You will find out that in order to shine you need to take some advance steps for a successful first client meeting. You have to organize and undertake possibly one of the most important tasks in gaining the client’s trust and achieving a successful business relationship.
Here are some tips I developed earlier in my career to help you have a successful first client meeting. View these nuggets as a series of processes to integrate with each other, forming a whole.
When you have a meeting set up with a client, it is because they need your expertise in solving a problem, creating a company, handling a business transaction, or representing them in litigation; all for which you need to prepare.
Preparation starts from your first correspondence with the client or from the moment they were referred to you by a senior attorney or partner. Remember to manage your preparation in correlation with the issue at hand.
2. Do Due Diligence
The due diligence step goes hand-in-hand with your meeting preparation. In this regard, there are two types of due diligence you must conduct.
First, study the client. Specifically, find out who the client is. Depending on the case or issue at hand, you might want to know about what type of business they operate or own, how long the client has been CEO of company X, etc. Chances are that he or she is not a new client to the firm and you will have an endless source of knowledge and insights from attorneys that have dealt with the client before.
Secondly, conduct research regarding the main issues and questions the client has. Normally, before meeting face-to-face with them you’ve had some type of communication with the client, either by email or telephone. In this first communication, take notes and highlight the key points of the conversation. Analyze each point critically with your lawyer hat on and put yourself in the client’s shoes; come up with questions they might have overlooked and be prepared to talk generally about the legal issues they are facing.
3. The First Impression: Look and Act Professionally
First impressions count. Lydia Ramsey, in her online article “First Impressions: How Seven Seconds Can Make a Deal,” says you only have about seven seconds to make a good or bad first impression. In those first seven seconds, says Dr. Carol Kinsey Goman, the other person determines if you are “competent, confident, and trustworthy” (http://www.womensconference.org/seven-seconds/).
Maintaining a professional appearance and demeanor sends a signal that you can perform your job effectively. This is even more critical when you meet the client on a Friday or a Saturday, days where we are usually more casual in the office. Dressing casually on such days is permissible, but always be well groomed.
Also, besides looking professionally, act professionally and engaging. Shake the client’s hand, make eye contact, and listen to them actively. This allows the client to assess your openness and trustworthiness.
Keep it simple. Use colloquial terms – you don’t need to impress your client with your legalese.
4. Do Not Use Your Office
Unfortunately, your office is a trap with all types of distractions. When you meet with the client for the first time (or any time) you need to be engaged and focused. If you have the meeting in your office you will hear or see emails pop up on your screen, your phone might ring one or several times, people will sneak their heads in to tell you that you have another meeting in fifteen minutes. You don’t want that and the client will get the impression he or she is not your top priority.
Meeting in a conference room or in a room where your daily gadgets are left behind shows the level of commitment you have. The client will feel that their business is in good hands and that they have your undivided attention. This not only shows your professionalism but your courtesy towards the client.
So book your conference room and on your way to your meeting, make sure you leave your cell phone behind or at least put it on silent (not on vibrate) mode. You don’t want to be caught glancing at your texts, emails, or having your client ask if you need to take that call.
5. Start on Time
Always start your meeting on time. Again, this goes hand in hand with showing your preparedness and professionalism. It’s not only your time being invested here, the client also set apart a specific time in their busy agenda to meet with you.
However, we all know that emergencies happen. It is very important that you are punctual with your clients and your work, for the reason that when emergencies do happen, people will tend to “forgive” your need to postpone a meeting or a deadline.
Use ten to fifteen minutes before the meeting to go over your notes and research. And before you meet the client make sure you spell out their name correctly and know how to pronounce their name. Lastly, always offer water, coffee, or soft drinks to the client before you start the meeting.
6. Have an Agenda of Key Points: Keep the Client on Track
Time is money, and by now you know how much your time costs the client. Every time you breathe on the client’s case it costs them money; the client will appreciate the efficiency with which you handle this first meeting and all subsequent engagements, communications, and projects. Therefore, draft a mini- agenda that serves as a road map of the key points the client had previously touched on; write next to them all possible answers, alternatives, and opportunities you have identified.
Keeping yourself on track keeps the client on track. Generally, clients tend to sit down and start telling you the story of their lives. Of course, the more information you get the better, but maintain control of what is important and what is not. You don’t need to cut your client’s story short, but when you see them drifting away from the main subject you need to get them back on track.
7. Manage a Client’s Expectations
Managing the client’s expectations is critical. First, you can manage potential outlooks if you prepare and study the possible outcomes of the issues at hand. Keep in mind, however, that you are not bulletproof and certain things might be completely out of your control; you need to identify those too.
When you prepare for your meeting, review all main subjects to be discussed with the client. Identify those areas where potential risks or troubles might arise.
Second, set appropriate boundaries of what your client should expect from your services. Your preparation before the meeting allows you to offer a rough estimate of what it might cost the client to engage your services.
When you manage the client’s expectations there is a greater likelihood that when things don’t come out completely in his or her favor, the client will not be surprised. This will preserve and strengthen the bond of confidence between you and the client.
8. Give the Client Action Items and Follow-Up
Through the course of the meeting it is very likely that you’ll identify other issues and discover other documents in the client’s possession that you need. Make a list of these documents and hand it to the client. Give a rough deadline for when you need these documents.
After your meeting, write an email or letter to the client summarizing the key subjects touched upon in the meeting. Within a week or so of your letter, follow up with the client regarding any other information you have gathered and remind them of the documents they need to send you if you have not received them or if deadlines are approaching.
It is essential you keep the client up-to-date regarding any progress or issues you find along the way.
9. At the End of the Meeting
Once the meeting is winding down, go over any final subjects and ask the client if they have any questions or doubts. This will assure the client you have their best interest at heart.
In addition, thank the client for taking the time to meet you and reassure them you will be in touch if any issues or alternatives come up; encourage two way communication.
Accompany the client to the reception area and shake their hand one more time. Leave them with the feeling that their case is in the right hands.
10. Trust Yourself and What You Know
“True, trust necessarily carries with it uncertainties, but we must force ourselves to think about these uncertainties as possibilities and opportunities, not as liabilities.”
Robert C. Solomon
The most important thing you need to remember, not only for your first successful meeting with a client, but for any stage and project in your professional career and personal life, is to trust yourself. Confidence is something you need to practice; with practice you will get better.
No matter who and where you are, if you are a sole practitioner or an associate in a large law firm, you and only you are responsible for your future. Make sure you build it in a way that when you look back you laugh out loud and say, “That was fun! Let’s do it again!”
1. Independent Insurance Agency, Inc. “Independent Insurance Blog,” last modified July 7, 2010, accessed March 25, 2012, http://independentinsuranceblog.com/?p=107.
2. Cussen, Mark. P., Investopedia. “Manage Your Client’s Expectations,” last modified January 29, 2008, accessed March 27, 2012, http://www.investopedia.com/articles/financialcareers/08/client-expectation.asp?&viewed=1&viewed=1#axzz1ra7O6Ox6.
3. Levitan, Peter, Mindshare, “First Impressions in Only 7 Seconds,” accessed March 27, 2012, http://pdxmindshare.com/blog/first-impressions/.
4. Goman, Ph.D., Carol Kinsey, The Women’s Conference Archive Site, “Seven Seconds to Make a First Impression,” accessed March 28, 2012, http://www.womensconference.org/seven-seconds/.
5. Ramsey, Lydia, The Sideroad, “First Impressions: How Seven Seconds Can Make a Deal,” accessed April 2, 2012, http://www.sideroad.com/Sales/first-impressions.html.
6. Bikin, Bruce, American Bar Association, Litigation News, “Client Expectations: Discovering Them, Understanding Them, Managing Them,” accessed April 4, 2012, http://apps.americanbar.org/litigation/litigationnews/trial_skills/tips_client.html.