For many busy independent professionals, meetings are an unwelcome interruption to getting real work done. Yet these conversations with the client – or potential client – are more likely to determine the future than anything you do today to get through your To-Do list.

“Meetings are indispensable when you don't want to do anything” - John Kenneth Galbraith

John Niland is patron of the European Forum of Independent Professionals, and a regular and popular speaker at IPSE events. Here, in the first of short series of articles, he throws light on a crucial aspect of independent working – how best to communicate with ones clients.

We rebel at this notion. It does not seem right. Surely getting the job done is more important than anything, more significant that how we talk to our clients?

In reality, both dimensions are important. Independent professionals are usually painfully aware of their To-Do lists, yet less aware of how they are coming across to clients. In this series of articles, we aim to raise awareness of the ‘dialogue-dimension’ in client-relationships.

The changing nature of business dialogue

Business conversations are changing. Because it’s happening slowly, we may not see this clearly. For example, do you recognise any of the following?

  • Less tolerance for long, structured meetings
  • More interruption: client or prospect is more likely to be messaging (sending emails, text messages and the like) during your meeting with them, particularly younger managers
  • Impatience with process: many business decision-makers expect every 15mins to have value
  • Less tolerance for being sold-to: clients now expect to define their own requirements, and expect you to simply deliver.

The review meeting

Let’s look at one ‘key moment’ that’s certainly changing: the review meeting. Many independent professionals like to conduct a quarterly/six-monthly/annual review of services with the client, or they ask for informal feedback on their services. This discussion would usually be quite structured: exploring strengths, areas for improvement, opportunities etc.

Of course, not all independent professionals have the courage to initiate these meetings. This is usually disguised as ‘conveniently forgetting’, ‘being too busy’ or ‘don’t believe in all that stuff’. We call that sophisticated-procrastination.

Even if you have been conducting these conversations, however, you may have noticed a new factor: clients have less and less time for this discussion. More and more of these meetings get cancelled at the last minute.

The simple fact that is clients have less tolerance/time for dialogue that is not directly related to their requirements. Even social lunches – the basic atom of business-development – are featuring less in the diaries of busy decision-makers. So if you want to have a review meeting, what do you do?

DO

  • Plan the discussion while still in client-delivery, not afterwards. Depending on the relationship, doing it informally (e.g. in the pub) is fine, certainly better than not doing it at all
  • Pitch the conversation as ‘lessons to be learned from our collaboration to date’ and talk about how and where that will be useful to them in the future
  • Focus on what is valuable, not how valuable you are.
  • Explore where else in the organisation (or beyond) you could be helpful i.e. where else is there need. If you have been genuinely client-focused up until now, as opposed to talking about you and your expertise, this will not come across as ‘shameless selling’.
  • Be willing to have this conversation frequently, not just once a year, or just before the contract ends.

DON’T

  • Ignore the need to have the conversation. The value of your work is not self-evident. In fact, the more you remove the client’s problems, the more invisible you become.
  • Assume that clients don’t want to have this dialogue. They do. But they are busy, so they want to talk about themselves, not you!
  • Turn this into an assessment of you. This is a fundamental mistake made by independent professionals every day, and it weakens your position as an adviser or expert. Remember you are there to assess them, not the other way around! The focus of the discussion is therefore what we are learning together, not an appraisal of you.

It takes courage to have these conversations. It’s easy to ‘forget’ or to allow them to be brushed aside. Yet these are key moments in business conversations: so it pays to use them well. How can you improve your client-meetings?

© John Niland

Useful resources

CVs and Sales, Finding Contracts