Foundations of a successful customer meeting

Foundations of a successful customer meeting

A far-too-common situation for sales teams, as in sales and sales engineers, is not effectively planning and preparing for customer conversations.  This self-inflicted wound can be especially impactful early in the deal cycle when the team is still trying to build credibility and earn customer buy-in.  For example...

Spending a ton of time to anger a top target

A very dedicated salesperson, Tony, once invested a metric ton of time getting his first conversation with a large auto manufacturer.  His commitment was commendable; he spent months cold calling and sending emails.  He reached out to them at an auto show and basically everything he could think of to break into the organization.  Eventually, Tony had a fantastic first call with DJ, the Director of the US-based Operations team responsible for the maintenance of their stateside IT and networking equipment.

Excited at his success, Tony went to his business partner, Evan, one of the most experienced sales engineers on my team.  Tony asked him to prepare a customized demo for the call.  Feeding off Tony’s excitement, Evan agreed even though this was against our engagement guidelines.

A couple days later, Tony went to another sales engineer on the team, Sheila, who specialized in a particular portion of our solution that Tony had a 'hunch' would be meaningful for the car company.  He asked her to build a demo as well.  Sheila reluctantly agreed, but decided to pull me in.

The next day, I joined the prep call to share my concerns.  Unfortunately, the customer call was on the following day and the damage had already been done.  Evan had invested more than ten hours building a cool car related demo for the customer.  Sheila repurposed an existing demo but, due to scheduling conflicts, had already invested in the couple hours tailoring it.  In essence, my team was in this opportunity for a dozen hours before we’d even qualified that an actual opportunity existed.

Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come. The call the next day was short, abrupt, and ended in an angry customer.

DJ’s focus for the call was security.  Our product's security that is. In his opinion, the absolute first barrier to be overcome must be validating that our cloud-based product could meet their high security and customer privacy standards.  Tony had done a fantastic job getting DJ excited about our solution, resulting in him bringing five members of his security staff to discuss our posture in excruciating detail.  The security team had researched our solutions architecture using our own website to bring with them very specific, very pointed questions.

DJ believed that he had been very clear during their first discussion that this was the next step.  None of them had any interest in either Sheila or Evan’s demos.  Neither Sheila nor Evan had the depth of knowledge necessary to provide the answers DJ's experts were after.  All in – the recording of the call was less than fifteen minutes long.

It’s easy to chock this failed conversation up to a mistake in agenda but the situation runs deeper than that - we obviously didn’t know what the customer wanted out of the call, or their purpose.  Add in that we had two completely different demos ready to take the conversation in two radically different directions, we really didn’t know what we wanted other than “one more call”. Or in other words we lacked a clear goal.  We also prepped the day before the call, leaving little time for any change in course.  

With that damage done, it took Tony five more months to get another conversation with the car company.

This is an extreme example, but how many of you have been in this exact situation?  Especially for those of us in organizations with one-to-many or non-dedicated relationships, a lack of planning and preparation can be especially painful.  We get pulled into discussions with customers we don’t know, all too often with little context.  Customers feel frustrated when we ask questions that they feel they’ve already answered or give them information they already know.  We get frustrated when content we’ve prepared goes unused or undervalued.

The need for strong planning and preparation is exemplified by the access to information that the Internet provides everyone.  When was the last time you walked into a car dealer without fiddling with the online configurator first?  Or bought a new TV without looking at online reviews?

Modern buyers use the internet for their business purchases just like most people do for their own personal ones. They can educate themselves on a company and its products without ever talking to sales, removing the need in many circumstances for the generic introductory deck.  They likely don’t need a generic demonstration because one is already available on YouTube.  Delivering a well-tailored, well-prepared message is more critical than ever before.

So how do sales teams ensure that they are set up for success on calls?  How do they define a plan which meets both theirs needs and their customers’ expectations?  And how do sales professionals (which includes us sales engineers) ensure that they do the right amount of research and preparation to ensure that their message can be tailored around a hypothesis of the customer’s needs and anticipated questions?

There are two meaty topics here that are often confused with one another.  For our purposes here, we will differentiate them as:

  • Planning is time spent aligning on the approach, design, or arrangement of activities for a specific event.  It is the strategy by which the meeting is executed.
  • Preparation is research, practice, and other actions taken to get a person ready for a an event.  Think, building and practicing a demo, scribbling down questions to ask during discovery, reading up on a topic for a deep dive, researching the customer, etc.

Let's start by focusing on defining “the plan” as it is necessary to have an agreed upon approach so that we know what to prepare.


There is a construct that I've brought with me to several organizations used to prepare for customer meetings that is simple, easy to remember, and when executed correctly dramatically improves the chance for success during any discussion - internal or external. It was originally shared with me by one of my former CEOs.

Its name is PGA.

No, we are not talking about the Professional Golf Association™.  PGA stands for Purpose, Goal, and Agenda: the three elements necessary to ensure a sales team is set up for success on a customer call.  With my teams, I term the PGA as the minimum planning necessary before getting on the phone with a customer. PGAs are most successful when they are written down, shared internally, and attached to the meeting notes.

At a high level, the structure is - Their PURPOSE.  Our GOAL.  The shared AGENDA.  Let's dig into each individually.


Simply put - “purpose” is “Why is the customer here?”.  What are they expecting to happen?  What do they want out of the conversation?   Remember - meetings are not just expensive for us, they are expensive for our customers.  What would cause someone in an organization to pull several members of their team from their daily routine to sacrifice time to talk with sales people?  There must be a reason, right? It sounds obvious, but we need to know that!  

Think about how much money that the car company above invested in their 15 minutes with Tony, Sheila, and Evan.  Keep in mind their security team also spent time researching our company beforehand, so they were ready for our painful discussion.  

When people from multiple teams in an organization join, chances are good they have different purposes.  Engineering and Marketing are seldom looking for the same thing when they join an introductory call with a vendor.  They may not even be considering the same business need.

The most critical element to remember about the purpose is that it is never, ever, EVER about us or our company.  While someone may be slightly interested in our solution because of some press coverage, or because they saw our booth at a conference, or because they used us at their previous employer, the reason they are sacrificing their time is always about them.  Should you or your team write down a purpose along the lines of “Customer wants to learn more about our Product X”, the team has missed the mark.  We need to ask at least one more question to understand why the customer wants to learn about Product X.

Here are some common purposes for early customer conversations:

  • Review a business problem that the customer is coming to us for guidance on
  • Understand how some of the customer’s competitors solve a particular need
  • Compare one vendor to another one that they are already down the path with
  • Ensure our organization meets some of their standards
  • Deep dive on a particular solution that may solve a specific business need

Quite often when preparing, a team discovers that they don’t know enough to say why a customer is joining the call.  The remedy is simple - ask for a prep call with the person inside the customer team that is organizing on their side.  Seldom do customers push back on this; most of the time they already have some skin in the game and are as interested in the call being successful as the sales team are.  Generally, they will be happy to have a quick chat. If they are too busy to talk, they should be willing to trade a few emails to ensure everyone is set up for success.

If they are resistant to even an email exchange on the topic, there is no doubt something else going on.  The team should carefully weigh its approach and time investment as well as develop a plan specifically around a potentially hostile audience.


In this blog, we covered the reasoning behind why planning and preparation are so key to our success in sales engineering and started to cover a successful paradigm to support this planning – the PGA.  Planning is a meaty subject, so it’s been broken out into two parts.  We will finish our deep dive into the PGA in the next post (which you can now read here) and cover best practices on how to run a prep call to ensure that a sales team is set up for success and gets the most value from both their and the customer's investment in the call.  In the future, we'll cover best practices around preparation to close out this topic.