Ten years ago, I showed up for my first meeting with my first customer while working at my first consulting job.  The customer was a dressmaker in suburban Philadelphia and I flew out to meet the IT Manager.

Everything went wrong. 
-The receptionist at my office erroneously told the customer that I would arrive first thing in the morning, even though my flight was scheduled to land after noon. 
-The customer was already disappointed by the quality of work delivered to date and had transferred at least part of his blame to me.  "This is your last chance", he told me during our first meeting, even though it was also my first chance. 
-The project was in a horrible state.  It was already past due and over budget when it was assigned to me.  The existing code as an undocumented mess of spaghetti logic, riddled with bugs.  Further it contained no logging or even graceful error handling.  When the program encountered an error, it simply crashed.

After a few months flying across country and working long hours, I was able to get the project quality to a level that was acceptable to the customer. 

But at that first meeting, I was completely confused and thoroughly intimidated.  I was there to help the customer but our relationship felt adversarial from the start.  I did not manage that first meeting well at all.

Since that time, I have had hundreds of first meetings with customers and I have gradually become better at managing that first encounter.

Given my disastrous first day on site, this article serves to give you the benefit of my ten years of trials and errors.  I like to believe that I learn from my mistakes and now you can also learn from my mistakes.

So here are my rules for a consultant’s first meeting with a new customer.
Rule 1: Listen
Rule 2: Don't solve the problem too soon
Rule 3: Set expectations
Rule 4: Do your homework
Rule 5: Other rules

Rule 1: Listen

This is the first rule because it is by far the most important.  You want your customer to describe his pain points for you and you want to have an understanding of those pain points and why they are causing problems.

Most of the time, a consultant is brought in because the customer wants to change something.  Find out what is driving his desire for change. 

Sometimes the customer has a detailed map of where he wants to go; sometimes he has no clue; sometimes he can see part of the solution; and sometimes he thinks he knows the solution but is on the wrong track.  Listen to what he has to say before deciding into which group your customer falls. 

Try not to interrupt, but ask relevant questions to clarify anything you don't understand.  Customers sometimes use jargon that they understand but you do not.  Ask for definitions when these terms come up.

Take good notes.

When the customer finishes, echo back your understanding of what you heard.  You can do this immediately or in a follow-up e-mail shortly afterward.

Rule 2: Don't solve the problem too soon

This point is related to the last one. Consultants and technical people tend to be problem solvers.  If we hear a problem and think we know the answer we want to shout out that answer to show off how smart we are.  (Okay, maybe you don’t; but I find myself fighting this urge all the time.  I’m a show-off and I’ve met many like me in the consulting industry, so I’ll stereotype here.) 
Most customers (another stereotype coming now) hate this.  If you tell them what they need before they describe their problem, you come across as arrogant, sloppy and uncaring. 
Your first idea may be correct but you should verify this before shooting off your mouth.  Of course, there is always the chance that the customer may know more about his own business and his own problems than you do.

It’s okay to ask questions, such as “Have you thought about this?” or “Have you ever tried this?” but be careful.  Don’t come across as suggesting that you know the answers before he even asks the question.  You are likely to lose credibility before you start.

Rule 3: Set expectations

I am a firm believer that every meeting should have an agenda.  For the first customer-facing meeting, you need two agendas:
1) What will be discussed at this meeting?
2) What will be the responsibilities and expectations of each person during the project?

Many projects fail because those involved don’t know what they are expected to deliver.  Assumptions can be fatal to any project because it is unclear who should be working on what.

Although each project is different, here are a few common questions worth clarifying
-Does the customer want a prototype or a production-ready application? 
-What is your role?
-Is the design complete?  
-Are you expected to lead or participate in the design? 
-Does the customer want you to mentor some of their team members?
-Are there any dependencies you need to be aware of?  What is the contingency plan if a dependency is not met?

You don’t need to answer all these questions at this first meeting but you should talk about them early in the project.  And you should leave the first meeting with an idea of the scope of the project and your role on it.

Rule 4: Do your homework

Before arriving at your first meeting, you should make an effort to find out what you can about the customer and his problem. 

Many times, a salesperson or project manager will have already spoken with the customer.  Talk to these people and get their take on what the customer wants.  Don’t accept that the salesperson has provided 100% of the information.  Several times, I have heard a customer describe a completely different problem than the one described to me by the customer.  (See Rule 1 for how to prevent this miscommunication).

Use the World Wide Web to learn at least the core business of the customer’s company. 

A little preparedness creates a good first impression and provides some context for your opening conversation. 

Rule 5: Everything else

Here are a few more bits of advice I’ve picked up over the years.
-Be on time.  Verify the scheduled time and plan to get there early if possible.
-Dress a little better than the customer.  This advice is often given for job interviews and I think it applies here as well.
-Avoid jargon and acronyms unless you are certain that the customer is familiar with the terms you use.  Your goal is to communicate and jargon often gets in the way of that goal.
-Don't take it personally.  I've had customers blame me for the mistakes of other consultants (some of whom worked for other companies), for the quality of Microsoft software, and for the health of their business.  In nearly every case, they are blowing off steam.  You should make every effort to keep the conversation on topic and the topic is: "What are your problems and how can I help you to solve them?".


The above list of advice is certainly not exhaustive but my experience has shown these to be the most important points when meeting a customer for the first time.