I've learned a lot about business and leadership from unlikely places and experiences, including bombing a tour audition with a rock star legend to leading a terrible band to almost taking my own business off the rails with rapid growth.
I often tell leaders I coach these stories because the learning opportunities stories give us stick in ways that information and data usually don't (even if a lot of stories expose our own vulnerability and fallibility).
In that spirit, here's a story about customer needs and a couple of mistakes that even those of us who feel like we know what we are doing can still make if we're not careful.
An Uncomfortable Presentation
I walked into the conference room to present my final proposal and materials for a potential client prospect.
I felt prepared. Over the previous few weeks, I had done multiple scoping calls with my client contact and another client business leader and had done a final briefing call with the client to prep for the onsite final presentation to the four key business leaders.
The work the prospective client wanted wasn't new to me, either. I had done this kind of work with a lot of other clients. Through my scoping conversations, I had also learned a lot about them and their needs, which I used to help me tailor my proposal and materials for them.
Everything felt pretty good. Then it didn't.
Within a few minutes of me starting my presentation, I looked around at the table and the business leaders to whom I was presenting. Instead of seeing eyes, I saw the top of four heads of hair and the back of four laptops. All four of the business leaders were deep into their laptops, and they weren't looking at the electronic copies of the materials I had sent in advance. They were doing other work, and they were very engaged in that other work.
I might as well have been presenting to myself.
One business leader was on his cell phone and his laptop. Two others were steadily looking at each other's laptops about what appeared to be an e-mail that they needed to commiserate about.
Admittedly, I wasn't used to this kind of experience. I was usually pretty good at this stuff even if I didn't convert every prospective client. At the very least, I was accustomed to them at least being engaged with me.
I smiled a bit even though they didn't notice. I thought about testing if they were actually listening to me at all by saying something ridiculous like "Teletubbies is my favorite show", but my self-imposed code of professionalism stopped me.
I plowed through. We finished, exchanged pleasantries, and I left. On my drive home, my wife called and asked how it went. With a little embarrassment, I told her that I suspected that our three-year-old son probably had a better chance of winning the work than I did.
Two weeks went by. Nothing from the prospective client. After another week of radio silence, I reached out to check in simply out of protocol for closure. I knew I wasn't getting the work. Within a day, the prospective client responded and let me know that they were going in a different direction...but they really liked my expertise.
Two Important Reminders About Understanding Customer Needs
At first pass, this might seem like one of those situations that you just write off. It would also be easy to say that they just acted disrespectfully during and after the meeting, and that over time that kind of disrespect will negatively color their brand in the marketplace.
Even with that being very true, there are still important reminders to take away from that experience that fall into the category of understanding customer or client needs. I made two important but common mistakes that day, neither of which justified the client's behaviors, but which were both critically important to fix:
1. I only thought I understood the client needs.
During the meeting, there were a few triggers that, had I really paid attention, indicated that the four business leaders were still trying to get aligned on what they really wanted and needed. Even with the series of preparation calls with my client contacts, I only thought I knew what these four business leaders wanted.
And knowing that they were ultimately the decision makers should have changed my preparation approach and even warranted an attempt to talk with one or more of them in advance.
2. I wasn't nimble in adjusting when it became clear that the client was still trying to figure out its needs.
I had options, though. Instead of plowing through like I did, I had an opportunity to call "time out" during the meeting and re-purpose the meeting to talk about what could be put together that better aligned with what they were thinking. Or even help them land on what would be important.
That might have been a risky move, but it might have changed the outcome. And certainly would have felt a little better than presenting to four heads of hair and the back of four laptops. Reminder noted.