Being invited to participate in a meeting with a customer should be considered an honor by any subject matter expert. Maybe you were invited by an account manager who needs assistance answering a prospect’s technical questions. Maybe a sales executive wants to demonstrate that your company possesses multiple layers of competence. Maybe the assigned sales engineer is unavailable and you are the logical backup. Maybe the CEO wants you to have experience listening to customers directly. Whether the meeting was scheduled to secure a new contract, kick off a new project, or resolve a vexing problem, someone thought you should attend. This is not a trivial endorsement of your knowledge or skills. Your colleagues probably had the option of including you, or including someone else, or including no subject matter expert at all, but they chose you. When you receive the invitation, you should accept with enthusiasm. Your colleagues want this meeting to go well and that starts with people who want to be there. Nobody wants an SME with an attitude. Regardless of your other deadlines or challenges, the meeting should be a high priority. A meeting with a customer does not interfere with your other work; it is the reason for your other work. Few things are more important than helping and delighting the customer.
Here are ten things every SME should do while meeting with a customer:
#1 Build Trust: When you ask colleagues about the objective of a meeting, they will probably respond with something like, “The client has technical questions about our proposal.” Or, “New equipment is scheduled for delivery and they need to understand the installation.” The objectives are typically tactical. Your colleague will probably not say, “We need to increase their trust in us.” But as an expert, your highest order of business is increasing trust. You will not accomplish any other goals if you do not first have mutual trust.
#2 Stick to the Objective: Every meeting should have clear goals and you need to know exactly what those goals are. Far too many SMEs assume they know why they are attending the meeting when in actuality, they do not. If the person inviting you to the meeting did not explain why they want you there, then you need to find out. Once you know the objectives, you should ensure that your words and gestures help accomplish those objectives. Don’t assume you know what your colleagues want from the meeting. Clarify the goals in advance and help everyone achieve them.
#3 Demonstrate Knowledge: In 1597, Francis Bacon said, “Knowledge is power.” An important ingredient to building trust is knowledge. Your audience will not trust you or do what you recommend if they are not confident you know what you are talking about. You must know your subject thoroughly, and then you must demonstrate that knowledge without conceit, arrogance, or condescension. Avoid giving away unnecessary free consulting, but show that you know your subject. Of equal importance, show that you know your customer’s business, their goals, their needs, and their risks and fears.
#4 Ask Questions: Regardless of how much preparation you make before a meeting, during the meeting you’ll need to ask questions. Don’t start giving advice or explaining solutions until you have obtained a thorough understanding of the situation by asking pointed questions. You might follow the tenet that three questions should precede any guidance. Asking direct, tactful and helpful questions will simultaneously demonstrate that you have interest in the customer and that you have mastered your subject.
#5 Teach: There is a difference between telling a customer and teaching a customer. Experts are notoriously guilty of just telling customers facts without truly teaching. When you tell a customer, you convey information without regard for their own comprehension or mastery of the information. Teaching, on the other hand, puts the customer’s needs first. You respectfully go at their pace and according to their receptivity.
#6 Say Yes: Saying no is easy. Maybe that’s why “no” is so prevalent among experts. But, most experts should purge the word from their vocabulary. The word “No” shuts things down. It ends the conversation. “No” dampens interest, excitement, and enjoyment. People hate nay-sayers and experts are far too often the nay-sayers in meetings. As an expert, you need to find ways to say “yes.” Explore the options, consider the alternatives, look for yes. It is not always easy, but it will result in much better results with customers and colleagues.
#7 Avoid Surprises: It is never a good idea to surprise your customers or colleagues with bad news in a meeting. If you know bad news is eminent, then give people a warning in advance. Give them time to digest important information before a decision needs to be made. Meetings should be used to solve problems, not create them. Be the expert who offers options or brings solutions to the meeting, not the expert who wallows in the problems.
#8 Respect the Team: Team dynamics can be challenging. You may not always get along with the people you work with. In client meetings, however, your team should be unified. Leave resentments outside, forget hard feelings, and leave all skeletons in the closets. Client meetings are no place for grievances or aspersions. No matter what is said during the meeting that might trigger a conflict, always respect the team. Compliment the client, but just as importantly, compliment your colleagues. They are smart enough to work with you.
#9 Find Win-Win: In addition to helping customers accomplish their objectives, subject matter experts play the important role of helping their own companies reach their goals as well. One of those goals is avoiding unnecessary cost and risk. Doing what is right for the client does not mean you must do what is wrong for your employer. If two options are sufficient for the client, then you should recommend the option that is best for your employer. If one option is optimal for the client but catastrophic for your employer then don’t recommend it. You must find a solution which is a win for the client and a win for your company. You must find solutions which work for both parties.
#10 Feed the Beast: SMEs can often be overheard criticizing account managers or sales executives for being too focused on the top line. Don’t be one of those experts. Don’t look for faults in the sales department. The amount of revenue your company produces matters; it matters a lot. Great SMEs should know that nothing in your company can be sustained without sales. Sales pay the salaries and keep the lights on. Sales is the life blood of any company. Of anyone, the experts should know the value of sales.