The Performance

People enjoy exploring their situation. When they get to talk about themselves and have somebody listen and ask questions, this is a gift. The craft of running a sales meeting is enabling that to happen for your client.

iStock_000040286014MediumYes, a sales meeting is a performance. It’s an opportunity for the “performer” to explain his or her situation, to explore and communicate what they know.

As a salesperson, you are part director, part stagehand, even part scriptwriter, but one thing you are NOT is the star of the performance — your client is the star. It’s their show. The tension, an integral part of any performance are the challenges, itches, bugs, annoyances that your client faces. If you don’t get to those, there is no tension and no story. There is no performance.

People enjoy exploring their situation. When they get to talk about themselves and have somebody listen and ask questions, this is a gift. The craft of running a sales meeting is enabling that to happen for your client.

Like cooking, you don’t just throw a bunch of ingredients in the pot at the same time. You need to add each ingredient at the right time and the right temperature and in the right way. You need to know what to hold back; to preheat the oven. You need direction technique and backstage process so you enable your client to shine.

Getting a Yes to the Meeting

If your business isn’t competitive on the sales side or there are many possible buyers, make the calls, ask for meetings. You’re much more likely to get a yes anyway from folks who aren’t bombarded. If the sales landscape is competitive, follow Sun Tzu’s advice and create some favorable terrain before you engage.

“The victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.” — Sun Tzu 300 BC

I hesitate to quote Sun Tzu‘s classic Art of War because it reinforces the analogy that business is like warfare, an assumption to which I don’t subscribe. The quote suggests that you only engage when you already know the outcome will be in your favor. I can’t help but think of this Sun Tzu quote whenever I call a prospect for the first time to set up a meeting. What’s their response going to be? Are they likely to agree, or am I more likely to be brushed off?

So how to take Sun Tzu’s advice? What might be all the ways to get on an important prospect’s radar screen so that when you do call, they’ll say yes to your meeting request?

In some industries the landscape is very competitive. Many business people are bombarded with requests to meet with salespeople. Clients won’t agree to see with everyone who asks for a meeting. A person bombarded by requests is compelled to determine who might be most useful to them, and meet with only those people. Deciding who they won’t meet with is part of their job. And, once they’ve said no to your request to meet with them, it’s very hard to turn that no to a yes. That would be like un-checking something off a to do list. You can keep asking, but you risk being perceived as pushy, overbearing or annoying.

open_windowA negative response to your meeting request has an even greater downside in industries where there are a small number of large buyers. You don’t want to make the annoyance list of the few companies who dominate the buying landscape. If they centralize their purchasing, you could annoy a mere three people and be almost completely cut out of the marketplace.

The good news is all you really need is one successful connection. If you have that, most people will agree to meet with you if you ask. There are many obvious, though not always quick and easy, ways to do this. Half the battle is taking the time to stop and ask yourself: Is this an important prospect? Do I have a reason to believe they’ll decline my meeting request?

If you answer yes to these two questions, then you probably want to invest in making a connection so you don’t lose this client before you even begin.

Here are some techniques to get on your important prospect’s radar screen.

1. Find a referral.
In building and using your professional network, seek people who can introduce you to prospects. Ask around, especially to senior people in your own organization. “Do you know anyone at Hyper Consolidated? I’m trying to get a meeting with their acquisitions team?” One email from someone your prospect knows that mentions you is usually enough. Get a linked in referral from someone well known in the industry. Attach the referral to an email, telling them you’ll be calling on a certain date.

2. Gather information about the company.
Go to their web site, read press releases, find the annual report’s CEO message. Or, find someone who works or worked there who will talk to you about the organization; it’s structure, reach, strategy or culture. You are looking for one topic that connects you to the person you want to meet or to their organization. They want to expand into the German market, and you just closed two deals with German companies. Communicate that to your prospect and you’ve just created positive separation between you and most other salespeople.

3. Research your prospect as an individual.
Internet searches can turn up loads of information on hobbies and other interests. For example, most road races and triathlons post the results on internet sites, and a triathlete or runner is likely to show up in several places. Even if you’ve never ridden a bike, an email congratulating them on their biking split at the Denver triathlon is probably enough to get a yes to your meeting request.

This is basic block and tackle sales research. Just remember to do it with a focus. You are looking for one connection between you or your company and your prospect or their company. Dig up two or three possible useful connections, and make notes. Look at the notes later and other ideas to connect you and your prospect will occur to you. Your notes will also be useful in preparing for the meeting that they are going to grant you.

As soon as you have your idea, execute. Send the email congratulating them on their triathlon time, with tickets to the Exhibit at MOMA, with information on the German market, or referencing a referral they received on your behalf. Then call and ask for an appointment.

To recap, if your business isn’t competitive on the sales side or there are many possible buyers, make the calls, ask for meetings. You’re much more likely to get a yes anyway from folks who aren’t bombarded. If the sales landscape is competitive, follow Sun Tzu’s advice and create some favorable terrain before you engage.

Questions for Them

Good questions might be a mash up between coaching and selling. A personal or business coach, in the purest form, only asks questions. Yet a good coach can provide plenty of value to a client. Ask good questions, be a coach to your clients, and you’ll benefit from the value you provide.

Demonstrating value is an integral part of any client meeting. It’s being useful to your client. It means that they are deriving benefit from their interaction with you.

From the salesperson’s point of view, the ideal demonstration of value is explaining how your product or service can solve a problem for your client. A problem which, if solved, will help them achieve a larger goal or objective.

There are other ways to provide value. One way is asking questions. “Asking questions?” You ask. Yes, asking questions. Not any question. Only some questions provide value. A simple way to separate those that don’t offer value and those that do is to divide them into questions for you and questions for them. Questions for you are questions that they have already asked themselves, especially questions they have already asked themselves to which they know the answer. When you ask questions that fall into this category you’re not helping your client, you’re informing yourself. This may be necessary so you can provide value later on, but you are using up your credits when you ask questions for you. (Neil Rackham’s book SPIN Selling includes situation questions, the S in his acronym, in this category.)

question_postitsQuestions for them (which, by the way, are also questions for you) are questions that your client has not yet asked, and doesn’t yet know the answer. They catalyze, invite new thinking, or reframe a situation. They often begin with one of these catalytic question stems: How might you…? What might be all the ways…? In what ways might you…? or How to? (An english professor, in England, once told me, with frustration, that “How to” results in a phrase not a sentence, so it’s technically not a question. But it can still be an inquiry, which is the point.)

A catalytic question poses a question from a new perspective, one that has not yet been considered. It doesn’t just transmit information from them to you. It opens up a new space to explore. It creates opportunity, and opportunity has value. A colleague was once consulting with a team from Accenture. (She was a consultant to the consultants. I find it refreshing that they take some of their own medicine some of the time.) She followed up on her first meeting by sending them a list, not of next steps, not action items or solutions, not suggestions, not even ideas. She sent a list of twenty-five “How might we…?” questions that she had derived from their conversation.

Accenture’s response?

“We should be doing this for all our clients.”

Simply by asking questions she demonstrated value.

Good questions might be a mash up between coaching and selling. A personal or business coach, in the purest form, only asks questions. Yet a good coach can provide plenty of value to a client. Ask good questions, be a coach to your clients, and you’ll benefit from the value you provide.

The Value of Negative Space

The suggestion, if you’re thinking like Michael Porter, is to choose which of the objectives are less important. This is often easier than choosing the most important. The situation, your industry, your personality, your client’s preferences and the current status of your relationship will all impact which objective you choose not to pursue. Peel away the onion and see what’s left.

“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do, and not doing it.” — Michael Porter

I’m a recent convert to Michael Porter’s principal for strategic action. It solves the common problem inherent in unclear goals. If top line strategy and objectives are ambiguous or unclear, then mission creep sets in; we can justify lots of activities in the pursuit of those loosely defined goals.

Thinking from a more abstract level than Porter probably intended, you can define any positive space by first defining the negative space. In theory, if you can effectively define all the things you’re not going to do, what’s left is your strategic plan.

negative-spaceDefining what you’re not going to do clarifies what you’re going to do.

For example, a negative space way to sharpen my strategy is simply to identify which of the many activities that are lingering on my to do list have less impact in getting me closer to my loosely defined goals. Setting the less effective activities aside, what I’m left with is what I will do. And what I’ll do determines what milestones I’ll achieve, and the goal I’m aiming for. Then I can ask myself. “Is that goal sufficient? Will those milestones that remain on my list get me to that goal?” If it is and they will, I have just sharpened my strategy.

Let’s attack a strategic question concerning sales:

What is it you want to accomplish in a meeting with a possible client? There are lots of answers to this question:

I want to build a relationship.
I want them to think of me when an opportunity presents itself.
I want to uncover seven reasons to follow up with them.
I want to understand their most important challenges.
I want to understand their business model and what their role is within it.
I want to walk out of the meeting with a deal to quote.
I want to resource and inform my client in ways that help them.

These are all good objectives. But if I set out to accomplish all of them in a client meeting, I run the risk of jumping around and not making useful progress on any of the objectives (the tactical equivalent of mission creep). The suggestion, if you’re thinking like Michael Porter, is to choose which of the objectives are less important. This is often easier than choosing the most important. The situation, your industry, your personality, your client’s preferences and the current status of your relationship will all impact which objective you choose not to pursue. Peel away the onion and see what’s left.

What remains is the clarified objective for your meeting: what do you need to do, and not do, to achieve that goal.

At whatever level of granularity you operate on the strategy-tactic chain, Michael Porter’s advice is useful.

Door to Door

I assume he was 100% commission based. Had he attended a training program to build his scripts? Did he build them alone or did the company provide scripts? Where did he live? How much did he make? How much thinking when into his dress. A tie paired with a scruffy, schoolboy outfit. Was it all considered, or was it all he had?

We were expecting no one when the door bell rang at my mother’s house. I opened the door. The air was brisk, the wind was strong, the sun was burning bright. Standing at my mother’s front door was a young brown skinned man, wearing a frayed white oxford and dark blue pants that were slightly too big for him. A brown leather belt kept them up. His black shoes were scuffed and worn at the heels. He wore a tie and a backpack. One of his front teeth was crooked and stuck out further than the other. He held a spray bottle of aqua colored liquid.

“Good afternoon. I’m sorry to bother you and your family on such a beautiful day. Are you the man of the mansion, the hombre of the house?”

walk_manhole“You could say that. This is my mother’s house.” I said.

“Is the lady of the house home?”

“She’s busy making lunch for the boys.”

My three year old nephew peaked out from behind my legs.

“Who is it?” my nephew asked.

“It’s a door to door to door salesman, I think.”

“Door to door it is. And right now I’m at your door. So let me show you the product I’ve got. It’s a pine based, all natural, water-soluble, all cleaning product. It does dishes, laundry, floors, kitchens, bathrooms, sinks and ovens, and it’s all non-toxic.”

He talked fast.

“Smell the product.” He had, while talking, unscrewed the spray top and poured a cupful of the fluid into a screw top cap. He held it up for me to sniff. I obliged. He then held it down for Atticus to have a sniff. Atticus did, wrinkled his nose, looked at me, and retreated back to the puzzle he was working on.

“A little strong for the boy. It’s a simple, clean smell isn’t it?

I nodded.

“It’s a fresh, clean, natural smell.” He narrated. “And did I say this yet? It cleans everything, safe and effective for bathrooms, kitchens and carpets. It’s the only cleaning product you need for the home. If you’re like most people you have a dozen bottles of cleaning products, some dangerous to the little tyke, under your sink and in a bathroom closet. They can all be replaced with this all natural pine product.”

If you were polite, there was no space to interrupt and say you weren’t interested. His delivery was rapid fire. He covered a lot of ground, fast. The words came as quickly as my brain could comprehend their meaning, leaving me with little mental bandwidth to determine how to extricate myself. His script was a show. He appealed to my curiosity. He was a cure for boredom. I kept listening. There was no space to interrupt anyway. His scripts were memorized. His rap was mesmerizing.

He continued “It’s not everyday that the KKK come to your door selling cleaning products. I see your surprise, by KKK I mean Kool Kolored Kids. Let me give you a demonstration. I saw some stains on your driveway.”

He identified three spots on the cement in front of the garage. They could have been oil spots from my mother’s car. They could have been all that remained of a squashed bug. (They could have been left by him before he rang the bell.) He dabbed a cloth with some of the aqua colored fluid, bent his knees to one side, crouching, and rubbed the three spots on my mother’s driveway. They all came up.

“I’m working hard out here cleaning the pavement in the hot sun. Let’s make life easier for your mother and provide her with this safe, natural, pine based, high-powered cleaning product. One bottle cost twenty-six dollars and will last you for a month. How much do you think her monthly budget is for dishwasher detergent, laundry, bathroom scrubbers?”
toothpaste-225x300
As a minimalist (I survive on shampoo, hand soap and toothpaste for the most part), I was intrigued by the idea of one product. I was pretty sure my mother wouldn’t be. The natural pine product would add to the clutter under her sink, rather than subtract from it.

He walked me back to the front door. “The product comes in regular strength for $26, and extra strength for $3 more per bottle. It comes in pine and lavender scents. I make $6 a bottle for the first bottle and I get 50% for any bottle I sell after that. So if you buy two, you really help me out.”

At this point I was more interested in helping him out than I was in acquiring more bottles of cleaning fluid for my mother. Telling the customer his share of the revenue was by design. The salesman banked on the fact that a hardworking door-to-door salesman deserved a break.

I had a lot of questions.

I assume he was 100% commission based. Had he attended a training program to build his scripts? Did he build them alone or did the company provide scripts? Did the trainer overtly make clear that you had to talk fast and have a few non sequiturs, like the KKK line to pique interest? Was it is intention to make the customer curious about you, because half of them would make a purchase to support you, not because they wanted the product? Is that the reason to go to nicer neighborhoods? People may not be more charitable but at least they have more to be charitable with. Where did he live? How much did he make? How much thinking when into his dress. A tie paired with a scruffy, schoolboy outfit. Was it all considered, or was it all he had?

If it wasn’t all by design, it should have been. To sum up my curiosity, I wondered how much of his presentation was deliberate, how much was instinct, and how much was random.

I imagined him at some seedy bar after work; a place that knew him. He didn’t drink there everyday. He was disciplined. His ample and entertaining memorized scripts were testament to that. He only went to the bar after a good day (or maybe a bad day), or maybe only on Fridays. He had his trademark drink, a Seven and Seven maybe, and chatted with the bartender with stories of his day. Perhaps on an interesting day, he regaled several of the regulars as well, who clapped him on his slight shoulder at story’s end and retired to their corners.

He started to repeat himself and I interrupted him. I was torn between my growing curiosity about his job, his training and his life, and getting back to the rest of my afternoon.

“Look.” I said. “My mom is moving soon and she doesn’t need any more bottles of stuff. I looked him in the eye. I’m not going to buy anything today.” I was looking at him when I started the sentence, I was I looking down at the threshold as I finished it.

“I won’t take any more of your day then,” he said quickly. I looked up. He was gone.

He moved so quickly I was surprised. Part of his strategy too? Not to attack a retreating client. Part of me wanted to say, “Wait. I have questions.” I wondered how many people do call out, “wait!” or “hang on” or “come back!” Their expression of no interest a rebuke that is followed by a wave of sympathy. (Once you’ve beckoned him back, you sort of have to buy something.) The rapid exit was a practiced part of his technique, I think. A polite, unexpected and abrupt one, but that was exactly the point.

Or maybe my statement of a lack of intention to buy was a clear signal, based on his experience, that he was wasting his time, and he might as well move along to the next door. In his mind I had ended the conversation, and he was taking away the entertainment. I don’t know.

I let him go.

I’ll be back in Santa Fe in July for a family visit with my mom before she moves. I hope he shows up again at my mother’s door. We’ll have lots to talk about.