When you work for yourself – or even when you’re an in-house trainer – client meetings can sometimes feel like an unnecessary drain on your time. I’m sure most of us have had times when we’ve sat in a meeting and wondered why we were there. And let’s not forget the organisations that seem to have meetings about meetings and decision making via vast committees. It can be hugely frustrating when you have other demands on your time.
On the other hand, client meetings can incredibly helpful. They offer an opportunity to get to know the organisation where you’ll be delivering training and build a long-term working relationship. A meeting, when kept on track and attended by the appropriate decision makers, can also be a time saver compared to an endless relay of emails and out of office replies.
So, how can you get the most out of client meetings and ring fence your precious time? Here are my top 15 tips:
Set your goals
Before you request a client meeting, you should know exactly what you want the meeting to accomplish. Ask yourself why it’s necessary and set one or two clear goals for what you hope to achieve.
If a client asks you to attend a meeting, it’s absolutely fine to ask what the focus and goals of the meeting will be.
Once the goals of the meeting have been set, send out an email to all of the attendees explaining the purpose of the meeting. This will help everyone to prepare in advance.
Invite the right people
One of the most common causes of unproductive meetings, in my experience, is that the wrong people have been invited to attend. Is it really necessary for the CEO of the company to sit in or even the people you will be training? It might be more appropriate to meet with the training budget holders and key decision makers or managers.
I’ve attended meetings in the past where half of the attendees clearly had nothing to contribute and spent the time doodling in their note pads or whispering with colleagues. Personally, I think it’s better to invite fewer people who all have something to contribute to the agenda.
Have an estimated finish time
Meetings often overrun but I think it helps everyone to have an exact start-time and an estimated finish time in mind. It can be easier to keep people focused when you know that you only have a set window of time.
An estimated end time also helps all of the attendees to plan the rest of their day. In fact, I was once advised to “Start meetings on time and end early” because doing so gifts attendees with an unexpected five or ten minutes to catch their breath, check their emails, reflect on what’s been discussed and generally decompress after a meeting.
Create a one-page summary of what the meeting will be about
I’ve attended several meetings where the client who called the meeting has provided a one-page summary of the meeting agenda and goals several days in advance of the meeting. This is a fantastic way to keep everyone on track and give people a guide around which to prepare their own thoughts and questions so that they come into the meeting with something to say.
Prepare your questions
Once you know the goals and agenda for a meeting, as well as who will be attending, it’s helpful to jot down any questions you have. As a freelance trainer, a client meeting is often your opportunity to get key insights into the organisation and its culture and how your training will support staff development within this context.
Give everyone time to prepare
When setting a date for a client meeting, it’s important to give everyone time to prepare. If, for example, a proposed attendee is on holiday, it would help them to have some time to read the agenda and plan their contribution before the meeting takes place.
Think about the venue
If you attend a meeting at a client’s site, you may not have a say about the setting. If you do have some input into the meeting venue, however, consider what will be the best fit. Will anyone be giving a presentation? If so, you might need a venue with a screen or interactive white board? Will the meeting be happening over lunchtime? If so, food should be offered. Do any of the attendees need an accessible venue?
If people feel relaxed and accommodated within the meeting venue, they are more likely to focus on what’s being discussed.
Freshen things up
Apparently, Virgin boss Richard Branson likes to add some novelty to his meetings to freshen things up, often flying attendees out to his private island or seeking out innovative thinking spaces. Although you may not have access to your own island getaway, you could head to a local park, coffee shop or art gallery for a change of scenery.
Keep track of the to-do list
If a meeting is attended by the appropriate decision makers, it’s likely that various actions and deadlines will be agreed. While you may not want to slavishly take minutes about who said what, you should make a record of who agreed to do what and when.
Before the meeting comes to a conclusion, remind people of what has been agreed and check that you have recorded the to-do list in line with everyone’s understanding of who’s doing what.
After the meeting, you should follow-up with a list of action points, who needs to complete them and a timeline for the agreed deadlines.
If someone is going to take minutes for everyone present at the meeting, this should be agreed in advance and the minutes should go to all of the attendees as soon as possible after the meeting while it’s still fresh in everyone’s minds.
Impress with your listening skills
I’ve been in meetings in the past – especially ones where too many people have been expected to attend without being in a position to contribute to the agenda – where the main speakers have been met with blank stares or a room full of people using their mobile phones, doodling or talking among themselves.
In these meetings, the people who stood out were those actively looking at the speaker, nodding, smiling, asking questions, making notes and generally engaging with what was being discussed. I always strive to be one of those people.
Stay on topic
Setting goals and a one-page summary/agenda for a client meeting should help everyone to stay on topic. Although a bit of social chit chat can be a great icebreaker, it’s important to remain focused on why you’re all sitting down together. If one of the attendees keeps wondering off topic, it might be your role to gently coax them back into focus.
You could allow a given amount of time for ‘Any other business’ towards the end of the meeting.
Give everyone a voice
If you have carefully chosen the attendees for a meeting, everyone present should have something to actively contribute to the conversation. Of course, some people are more reticent to speak than others, so you may need to encourage the quieter attendees to have their say and also steer the conversation away from the more vocal participants!
Stay until the end
Depending on the agenda for a client meeting, you may have the opportunity to bow out early. I would always recommend avoiding this, if possible. Although your time is precious, staying until the end of the meeting will give people the opportunity to ask questions and even chat with you informally afterward.
Learn from your experience
After a client meeting, I like to take a few moments to think about what went well and what could be done differently at future meetings.
- Was there someone who should have been asked to attend but wasn’t?
- Were there questions that couldn’t be answered?
- Did everyone contribute to the discussion?
- Could information have been delivered in a different way?
- Did everyone understand the vocabulary being used or was there too much jargon?
These insights should help you to make future client meetings even more productive.
As well as following-up with the minutes or a timeline and list of action points, it can be helpful to reach out to other meeting attendees to say how nice it was to meet them or to answer any questions that weren’t resolved in the meeting.
Of course, if there’s anything you have personally agreed to do in terms of specific actions, make sure you complete them as agreed and communicate this to the client.