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Preparing for Heated Discussions with Major Clients

Managing Expectations
Meetings
Sharing The Vision
Roadmap

2 November, 2021

Robin Gupta
Robin Gupta

Engineering Manager at athenahealth

Robin Gupta, Engineering Manager at athenahealth, discusses how he successfully led a meeting that turned to a debate while underprepared.

Problem

I previously worked at a startup that merchandised products before adding them onto significant platforms. While in this position, I found myself attending an impromptu meeting with a client when I was unprepared. My CEO informed me that this meeting was with a major partner struggling with quality-related bugs and production issues in our system. When we arrived at the meeting, we found ourselves confronted with a team of C-level executives that bombarded us with questions regarding our timeframe and bugs in our system. Each question provoked more challenges, and we found ourselves quickly engaged in a heated discussion. Unfortunately, I was unprepared for this back and forth exchange of views and had only prepared data detailing recent bugs. I stayed on my feet participating in this discourse and created a system to prepare for future meetings.

Actions taken

As I was on my way to the meeting, I inquired about any information I would need for this meeting. My CEO informed me that all I should bring was data explaining our most recent bugs. Although I felt prepared, when we stepped into the meeting, it was apparent that our client held higher expectations than ever. When attending meetings, I checked the invitation or asked my colleagues about the attendees and what my expectations should be. Without knowing who will be present, it is impossible to know what will be discussed, making it more difficult to prepare correctly. Once we knew our target audience, it would be easier for us to frame our ideas around the meeting. For example, if it is with the CTO, it will most likely be technical. If it is with the CEO, it may be about revenue or high-level challenges.

After this meeting I’ve strived to understand my audience. Once I understand, I try to slightly prepare for these meetings and understand what answers are satisfactory. Being over-prepared usually ends in confusion, whether it is with myself or the other attendees. Understanding an audience gives the presenter the ability to tailor information to the listeners. For example, using complex, technical terms when speaking with a non-technical team would reduce the value of your meeting. When speaking at All-Hands or significant events, I began preparing earlier than normal. I would put my presentation in writing and time my speech, making it as concise as possible.

On the other hand, when people are underprepared for a meeting, they stick tightly to the information they arranged. I’ve concluded that taking this approach leads to frustration and often a less successful outcome. Even if underprepared, it is essential to create discussions that are valuable for the other parties involved.

During my meeting with this large client, I was straightforward and told the client that we could either debate their challenges for the next few hours or work together to find a solution. While acknowledging their struggles, I provided actionable statements describing our steps to improve their experience. In connection with the client, I created a roadmap that detailed our top five priorities. Within the roadmap, I delineated who had responsibility, what the desired outcome was, and how long it would take to get there.

Lessons learned

  • Understand the history of your client. If you are speaking with a client about appraisals, you should understand how it previously worked and expectations. The history and patterns of previous discussions or interactions will benefit your current meetings.
  • Many clients are looking for accountability. Apologize, if necessary, and promise for improvement in the future. By doing so, you are holding yourself accountable while displaying your empathy for their problems.

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