Published March 21, 2023
Client workshops can be powerful business tools, allowing you to gain insights by tapping into your clients’ perspectives. In this article, we’ll talk about:
Before we dig into the practicalities, let’s start from the top…
A client workshop is a guided session in which a company’s clients, often with company’s team work together to brainstorm ideas, solve problems, or develop strategies. It’s a chance to get a valuable outside view on the company. It can even be used to explore specific problems or needs a client faces, and so to develop solutions for them. As such, it can be a key tool in B2B client management.
The session is led by a facilitator who keeps the discussion on track and ensures that everyone has a chance to share their ideas. This isn’t just an opportunity for clients to vent or for the company to seek their praise. As the name implies, it’s about the work, and should remain focused on the purpose set out for the session.
That purpose can vary. It might be about assessing achievements, planning strategy, creating products, carrying out a SWOT analysis, or almost any other topic where a substantial discussion with clients could be valuable.
Client workshops are useful because they provide an opportunity for a business to gather feedback from its clients. This feedback can be used to improve the products or services that the business offers and the way that it delivers them. Working within a business, it’s easy to lose perspective on how it looks from the outside and what its services mean to other people. Surveys and client feedback can widen that perspective, but a client workshop is a chance to get in-depth, to ask questions and follow up on them, to draw out details and nuance in specific areas.
Client workshops can build relationships between the business and its clients, contributing to client success. By creating an opportunity for communication and collaboration, and by showing the client that the company cares about their opinions, a workshop can make clients feel invested in the company’s success.
Given all of this potential, there’s a lot at stake. That’s doubly true because of the commitment that your clients are making. If they’re spending their people’s time on doing you the favour of participating in a workshop, then you need to make sure that it’s well run and leads to real value.
The workshop coordinator’s responsibilities can feel overwhelming, but if you can nail the key points then everything will flow smoothly from there. So how can you get the best out of a client workshop?
Getting this right starts well before the workshop itself.
To get the most out of a workshop, you need to be clear about its purpose. This will help you determine the format, structure, and activities. It will guide the discussion and help the attendees understand what sorts of thoughts and information you want them to bring to the table.
Before you even start listing who you’ll invite, take some time to think through exactly what the workshop is for. Is the purpose to generate new ideas? To help the client prioritise their goals? To come to a consensus on a plan of action?
Make sure that you’re clear on the purpose in your own head, and that this clear purpose is conveyed to everyone attending so that they can understand what they’re doing and why.
When selecting participants, consider who needs to be involved to achieve the workshop’s purpose. You need the right mix of key internal and external stakeholders who will have insights into the topic under discussion and who will help you to see the problem from every angle.
For example, if the purpose is to generate new ideas, you’ll want to include people from different departments and levels within the organisation, as they’ll approach the topic in different ways. If the purpose is to help the client prioritise their goals, you’ll want to include people there who are decision-makers, who can both express existing priorities and implement new ones.
It can be a good idea to have leadership present from the appropriate levels on both sides. Involving your own leaders shows the client that you are taking the exercise and their perspective seriously. Getting their leaders involved commits them more heavily to the exercise and its outcomes, meaning that they’ll take it seriously. But be careful not to reach so high that you lose perspective. The people in the workshop need to be close enough to the topics you’re discussing to provide understanding, insight, and innovation.
Having the right number of people is almost as important as having the right people. You want enough participants to spark lively conversations and get a variety of perspectives. But if you have too many people, some voices will be drowned out. Balance the number of people based on how much time you have and the needs of the client workshop topic.
As well as the overall number of participants, the balance between external attendees and those from your company is important. Try not to overwhelm client representatives with too many of your people, as this may put them off talking. The clients shouldn’t feel like guests at your company’s party but like the focus of the event.
As with so many meetings, a client workshop’s agenda will set the tone and provide the framework for the whole event. While you’ll need to show some flexibility on the day, setting out a clear structure in advance will help you to work out what you want, set expectations for those taking part, and shape a constructive conversation.
The agenda should be sent to participants at least two weeks in advance. This will give them time to prepare, gathering relevant information and thinking through their own perspectives. While off-the-cuff opinions can be useful, considered ones are more likely to provide a deep insight into the hows and whys of a topic. Sending out the agenda also gives participants a chance to get excited about the event. This may be their best chance to talk about issues that matter to them, and the passion that brings can energise the conversation.
When you’re sending out the agenda, provide relevant data and explain where you’re currently at. This will give the participants a context and a starting point, putting people on the same page before the conversation beings. It also saves time at the start of the workshop, time that can then be spent on topics of value to you.
The workshop environment should be positive and relaxed. This will encourage participants to feel comfortable sharing their ideas.
This includes the physical environment. Refreshments, comfortable seating, and the right light and temperature will put people at ease. Having tools like whiteboards, flip charts, sticky notes, and pens in easy reach will make it easier to express and record ideas. A central table provides a focal point around which to gather and a familiar setting for those used to business meetings.
The way that you talk is also part of that environment. Be clear and concise. Leave plenty of space for others to take part. Avoid jargon, which can lead to confusion, and especially avoid jargon that clients might not know, which could alienate them and reduce their participation. Think carefully about how you talk in-house, including labels for teams and processes that are only meaningful to your company, and consider what terms you can use instead to ensure that outsiders understand.
It’s likely that not everyone in the room will know each other. The uncertainty this brings can get in the way of conversation, but fortunately it’s easy to get past that
Make an icebreaker the first of your client workshop activities. This is a great way to get everyone interacting and comfortable with each other. It also helps set the tone for the rest of the workshop, raising the energy level and encouraging interaction.
Even in the limited time available, there’s a risk that a client workshop’s activities may become stale and repetitive. Using the same approaches and structures, especially ones that people are familiar with from other meetings and workshops, is unlikely to create the best results.
Instead, use a variety of facilitation techniques to keep participants engaged and help you achieve the workshop’s purpose. Explore different ways of discussing and feeding back on topics, of framing debates, and of generating ideas. Mix things up during the course of the session to revive flagging energy during low periods and to generate a variety of insights and opinions on the topics you’re discussing.
Some techniques will work better than others, and which ones are valuable will depend upon the personalities of your participants. By familiarising yourself with a variety of approaches, you can be ready to adapt to circumstances and to stir things up.
In any workshop, there’s a risk that the conversation will be dominated by a few forceful voices. As the workshop facilitator, it’s important to overcome that, to increase the satisfaction of participants and get the full range of available perspectives.
Make an effort to ask the opinions of quieter attendees and use prompts to trigger the right conversation, but give people space to talk. You might sometimes have to ask the more vocal contributors to wait a moment and let others have their say. If you do this clearly, respectfully, and consistently, it shouldn’t cause any offence.
Make it clear that the session is about the clients, not you. Listen to what they’re saying and avoid saying any more than you have to. Get them talking with one another, bouncing ideas back and forth.
If you can encourage participation in the right way, this will help ensure that everyone feels like they’re contributing to the discussion.
Given the chance to talk with you about your products and services, there’s a good chance that clients will get distracted, bringing up issues they’ve been facing or problems that are on their minds. Even your own team can get distracted, as they gain insights into other topics.
It’s important to keep the discussion focused. This can be achieved by asking specific questions and keeping participants on track. Listen actively to the conversation, make notes, and respond in ways that draw attention back to the main topic. Phrase questions to encourage relevant answers.
Set up somewhere for noting down unrelated issues. It could be a flip chart, a computer document, even a notebook. Point it out at the start and let participants know that they’re welcome to add to it at any. Tell them that you’ll look through it afterwards and respond to anything written down there. That way, they know that they have a channel to make their concerns heard, and don’t need to voice them all here and now. If anyone is getting sidetracked, ask them to note the point down, then bring the conversation back onto topic.
A client workshop will raise a lot of ideas, and it’s easy for them to get lost. It’s also easy for people to lose track of what’s already been settled, and so go around in circles.
To avoid both of these problems, summarise the key points as the discussion progresses, and go through them periodically to remind people of where you’ve got to. This will focus the discussion, help participants remember what’s been discussed and ensure that everyone is on the same page.
Getting clients in for a workshop like this is a rare and valuable opportunity, so you’ll want to get the most out of it. The instinctive way to do that is to work through the whole time, with an unrelenting focus on the important issues, but that’s not the most effective approach.
Workshops can be intense and participants will start to tire out. The brain is an organ, like any other, and it needs rests to work at its best. Those rests can also be a good time for the subconscious to get to work, coming up with ideas no one would have thought of while in the discussions.
Allow for breaks throughout the workshop so that participants can recharge. As well as taking a bathroom break and grabbing some refreshments, they’ll have a chance to make connections through casual conversation and to ease off for a few minutes, ready to come back re-energised.
Taking regular breaks will lose you a little time, and you might not get to answer everything you wanted to. That’s ok. It’s better to get a few good insights than a host of bad ones dredged from exhausted brains.
All of the insights you’re acquiring will only have value if they turn into action, so that’s where the workshop should end up: with an action plan. This will ensure that participants know what needs to be done next and who’s responsible for each task. Most of the clients joining you probably won’t have any action items, but it will be satisfying for them to know what’s happening next, and to see that their insights will lead to something productive. This is also a chance for you to tell them what outputs they’ll see from the workshop and how soon you’ll get back to them about issues that were set aside.
After the workshop, make sure to follow up with participants. Thank them for their participation and send them any minutes, transcripts, or notes that you offered, as well as the answers to questions you couldn’t resolve on the day. For participants with action items, particularly those within your business, make sure that they’re on track to hit target dates and that they have any support they need.
Good follow-up will consolidate relationships made during the workshop and create the sort of good impression that brings clients back the next time you ask for their help.
Because it focuses on a client’s perspective, a client workshop can be invaluable in helping you to work better for that client. This leads to many benefits, including:
Done well, a client workshop will enhance your understanding of key topics, provide unexpected solutions to challenges, and build stronger ties with a client. It’s a powerful tool and one that can be hugely beneficial in the world of client success.