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The good, bad and ugly of meeting with clients

Meetings are generally a good thing, otherwise there probably wouldn’t be so many of them. They provide an opportunity to share ideas, convey information, and agree on a plan of action. However great the potential a meeting may have, there is also an opposing force that can actually make meetings disruptive and counterproductive. How do you distinguish between the two, and what steps can be taken to ensure the meetings you have are productive?

I’m involved in dozens of meetings each year. Most are positive, but there are always a few stragglers that creep in that are so bad you never want to have another get-together.

Good meetings have a conductor orchestrating the content and tempo of information. They are informative and provide you with the tools for directing future steps in your project. Bad meetings often do not supply the correct information or produce the vital results needed to keep things on track. Bad assemblages can creep up on you. You may go through an entire meeting thinking it’s properly paced only to find out in the end that it was counterproductive. Typically, either the information was not relevant, or the content got too far off topic.

A very bad meeting

About a year ago, I was working on a kitchen island for a multi-phase project that got rolled into one big job. Although everyone meant well in the beginning, my client quickly became overwhelmed with the onslaught of decisions and cost overruns (so much for doing it all at once). Recognizing early on that client meetings were going to be a crucial step in managing this fast track job, I made it my ambition to keep the lines of communication open. We met every week to cover the progress of the project. I was diligent about keeping the meetings short through thoroughness and being concise.

Up to this point, all our meetings were positive. Even though everything wasn’t going as planned, everyone was informed and on the same page towards our goal of completion. Some weeks had so much information and so little time to discuss issues that we began to handle the vast majority of overflow through an electronically shared job correspondence document. When we were about halfway through the project, I realized things were still falling through the cracks. The client began responding to my emails with a passive-aggressive tone that was eroding our relationship to the point of eminent disaster.

After a half-dozen negatively charged emails, I set up a meeting for the end of the week. I knew they were frustrated with an imagined lack of progress so hashing things out became top priority. Anytime you have the opportunity to clear the air with a client, take it! Nothing eats like a cancer on a job more than lack of communication with the people you’re doing work for. But these types of meetings have a high probability of turning volatile, so it was scheduled without the crew on site. That way the client could feel more comfortable hashing things out. The last thing you want to do in a meeting is to create an atmosphere where participants cannot voice their true feelings.

I started the meeting by being very direct in addressing the previously voiced concerns of the client. Rather than reacting with a common response that would embellish the concern, the client simply stated, “I just want it done”. I then directed the content towards the issues we were dealing with on the project (weather, subcontractor delays, etc.) to which the client responded, “I just want it done”. At this point I knew they were beyond reasoning and I wanted it done, too.

I reminded them that they changed the scope of the project by doubling the amount of work originally contracted, and as the signed Change Orders explained, the added work both increased the cost and amount of time to complete the project. This opened a flood gate of accusations of poor time management, but never an acknowledgment that the time increase was a direct result of the added work (not to mention weather delays caused from a record-breaking snowstorm). After listening to the two-minute rant, it was followed by, “I just want it done”, and the meeting was over.

What I learned

The client had pre-determined that I was the source of their problem, and there was no reasoning with them whatsoever. I was able to nurse the job through completion, got paid in full, but never felt like we completed the project successfully because the client was obviously unhappy. After debriefing my team, we realized that the client was never happy from the beginning. The workmanship was top notch and the entire team acted professionally; we were simply dealing with someone who could not be pleased.

The most important thing I took from that failed meeting is that I had relied too much on emails and electronic documentation. Had I kept up the in-person meetings the clients’ concerns may have been better met. Longer or more frequent meetings would not have changed their attitude towards our company or the job, but it certainly would have kept a tighter control on their emotions regarding the many changes. Use the electronic paper trail as much as possible, but don’t let it take the place of a good, well organized face-to-face meeting.

I think we all agree that client/business meetings are essential. One-on-one contact is often the best way to keep everyone on the same page. However, you must establish a well-defined agenda to keep things on track. Meetings should be concise and kept as short as possible. Once a meeting gets off track, people have a tendency to lose their mojo not only for the meeting, but for the actual work that needs to be done after the meeting.

Remember, the meeting is supposed to support the work, not the other way around.

This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue.

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