Just like a personal or business relationship, making a good first impression - getting off on the right foot - is important in project engagements. You only have one chance to make a first impression and how well you handle - as the project manager - the formal project kickoff session will definitely have an effect on at least the first part of the project.
What's so important about the project kickoff meeting?
You may ask, why is that so? The project should speak for itself at this point and the customer knows what they want. Why is it important to successfully run the project kickoff meeting. That's an easy one. Because it's the first real time that the customer gets to see you and your team (whoever is already assigned and at the kickoff meeting - at this point it may just be you), gets to hear you, gets to smell you....etc....you get the picture. Everything they know about you - other than a corporate resume that your senior management probably passed on to them when you were assigned - comes from this meeting. How confident and poised you appear, how experienced handling pressure, how well you run a meeting, how well you handle executives, and how well you make decisions and enforce them initially comes from this meeting. Now do you get the picture?
What you can do to nail it
Since you now realize how critical your performance during this initial project kickoff session is, let's discuss how you can wow the customer ... how you can help ensure that you nail the kickoff session and send the customer back home with a sense that you are, indeed, the right person to lead this project and be responsible for spending their money.
For me, preparation for the project kickoff meeting is a four-step approach:
Step 1 - Meet with the account manager who closed the deal
The account manager likely put together a draft schedule. Get this - you'll want to know what the customer has already seen even if you have to start over from scratch on the project schedule (and you probably will). They will have also put together a draft budget because that's what they used to price the engagement to the customer. Get that, too. You need to know what baseline expectations may have been set with the customer as far as technical/skilled resources that will be available and assigned to the project. You'll start over and put your own together, but this initial input is good to have and possibly build from if it appears to be somewhat reasonable and accurate. Also, you absolutely must have the project statement of work (SOW) in your hands. This document will likely drive the project kickoff meeting.
You also want to have one or two calls with the account manager to gain customer insight, understand what the customer may have already been given like report mock-ups, draft documentation, etc. And what they may have been told about testing preparation and training needs.
We discussed the importance of nailing the project kickoff meeting and we started looking at the steps you must take in order to be as prepared as possible for this critical event. We covered step 1 - meeting with the original account manager. Now let's look at steps 2 through 4....
Step 2 - Review all relevant documentation and create an initial schedule, budget, and risk list
Once you get all the hardcopy and electronic initial project documentation, look it all over very carefully. As mentioned above, you'll probably use the draft schedule and budget from the account manager as input for your initial versions of each of these that you produce. Using your project management software tool of choice, tweak what you have from the account manager and create a meaningful draft project schedule that you can show the customer and begin managing the project from. You'll want to use the statement of work as a guide as you put this draft project schedule together.
It's also a very good idea at this point to start putting together an initial risk list. You won't be able to put the full list together - that will come during a planning session with your team and the customer, but you can show pro-activeness to the customer while at the same time getting a head start on this critical task.
Step 3 - Have a brief call with the customer
The next step is to hold a short introductory call with the customer. This call will serve two purposes. It will A) allow you to introduce yourself and any of your team members that are already assembled at this point and B) set a date and expectations for the project kickoff meeting. This includes setting customer expectations (and limits) on who they will have attending the kickoff meeting. Customers have a tendency to want to bring everybody to the kickoff meeting - I've had customers with as many as 40 attendees. That is not good and it's not productive. Everyone wants to have a say and it can turn the kickoff meeting into a planning meeting when you're not even at that point in the project yet. Maintain control - stay in charge.
Step 4 - Put together and deliver a professional presentation in advance of the kickoff meeting
Finally, put together a detailed and professional presentation that will drive the project kickoff meeting. Use everything you've put together so far as input data for the preparation, but stick to the statement of work as the primary driver of the kickoff meeting and use it as the basis of any assumptions that are made. That way any changes that are noted during the kickoff meeting can be addressed as change orders and requirements changes during subsequent planning sessions.
If you follow these four steps - at a minimum - you should be fine. This way, you'll be as prepared as possible going into the kickoff meeting. You won't know everything going in because the kickoff meeting can and should be a learning session on it's own. But you should know 80% or more about the engagement before kicking it off so assemble this information and put it together professionally so your customer sees you're prepared and gains confidence in you.