The Most Important Moment in Sales

When you walk into a meeting with a new client, a useful metric for sustaining a meaningful dialog is five questions: five questions that occurred to you as you were researching your client; five questions that are conversation starters; five questions that can’t be answered with a yes or a no.

Preparing for a face-to-face meeting with a new prospective client

questions-cloudsHow much research is enough to go into a meeting with a prospective client in order to lead a meaningful dialog?

It’s self evident that as a salesperson you should know the obvious things about the company with whom you are meeting. Is their market cap, their supply chain, or current industry news, information you should know based on the industry you work in? A grasp of the information that is relevant and easily available is a hygiene factor. Knowing this background data is necessary, but it won’t get you very far in terms of a successful meeting.

When you walk into a meeting with a new client, a useful metric for sustaining a meaningful dialog is five questions: five questions that occurred to you as you were researching your client; five questions that are conversation starters; five questions that can’t be answered with a yes or a no.

Why five? Five satisfies the Goldilocks principle. It’s not too many. It’s not too few. Despite your research some of your questions will be dead ends, either because your client doesn’t know the answer, the answer doesn’t lend itself to any further exploration, or you learn the answer in the meeting before you get the chance to ask it. A couple will generate traction. Five is usually enough to get and keep a conversation rolling. The goal of your five questions is to find new and better questions, questions that your client has not yet solved, questions that your client has not yet even articulated, but if solved would help them move forward. (We call these catalytic questions.)

As you do your research, look for what you are naturally curious about, and then construct open questions that require your client to think and work to answer. Questions that require a detailed answer start with stems like…

Can you tell me about…?
What was/is the motivation for…?
How did you accomplish…?
Can you explain the reasons for…?
What’s the impact of…?

It’s natural that some of the things you’ll be curious about are areas that relate to your product or service. If you’re selling a recycling service, you might say “I saw in your annual report a commitment to environmental sustainability. How is that impacting your division this year?”

Remember, to prepare for a meeting with a client, generate five questions that meet these three criteria..


  1. You are genuinely curious about.
  2. May link to your product or service.
  3. Start with an open stem like the ones listed.

Now, you’re ready to have a productive first face-to-face with a new client. Good luck!

Why a Sales Conversation is Different from a Normal Conversation

conversationA good sales conversation involves the salesperson asking questions. As you listen to your client answer the questions you ask, your brain will give you ideas about how you might help. In a typical conversation, you’d probably offer these ideas as they occurred to you. In a good sales conversation with a client, we suggest you don’t say your ideas as they occur to you. You wait. You stay in the question. In this way, a good client conversation actually modifies the natural conversation process slightly. Here’s why.

1. Once you start talking about your idea, especially if you only have one, and double especially if it relates to your product, it’s hard not to defend it. And defending your product or idea at the beginning of a meeting is not a good start to a productive sales conversation.

2. At the end of the meeting you are most informed. An idea you had early in the meeting will get better (or discarded) as you learn more from your client.

3. It’s a powerful dynamic to summarize, at the end of a meeting, all the ideas you have to help your client (not just those linked to your product). It shows you listened with them in mind, throughout the whole meeting. It illustrates your potential value on many levels.

It takes practice to modify your normal conversational method; to not interject your ideas; to hold them until the end. Here are some conversation modification tips to help you stay in the question.

1. Look for and ask open–ended ‘How to…’ or ‘How might you…’ questions. ‘What might be all the ways…’ is another nice stem. These are open-ended questions that leave space for lots of answers and conjecture.

2. ‘Can you tell me more about…’ is a great starter to keep you in the question. (Ok, it’s technically a yes or no question, but it works like an open ended one. If the answer is ‘yes’, folks will usually go ahead and tell you more about it.)

3. Often you’ll have an idea or an answer jumping to get out of your head. You want to say, “You should expand to the south?” It’s hard not to. Try turning it into a question.

“To achieve more scale, have you though about expanding to the south?”
(This is better than saying. “You should do X.”)

But, you probably noticed that the question above is really an idea disguised as a question. It’s better than saying. “You should do X.” But, it’s not open-ended.

So, instead of proposing your idea, turn your yes-no question into an open question.

‘What might be all the ways to achieve scale?’

Maybe they already tried expanding south, (or whatever X is). If they have, the ‘What might be all the ways’ question above will usually elicit that. And hearing all the other things they tried so far may give you more ideas about what else they could try. Note those ideas, and save them until you’re finished questioning.

The most important thing to remember about Questions is to stay in them. The question starter stems help you do that. Again, they are..

How to..?
How might you..?
What might be all the ways..?
Can you tell me more about..?

Remember, stay in the question.

The Walls Have Ties

waiting_room_2Your clients’ offices — including reception and common areas — are their habitats. They’re filled with clues about the company and its culture. Think of the waiting room as an anthropological research opportunity, where you’re exposed to resources that aren’t available in company reports or on the Web.

There are topics for discussion literally littering the walls. The artwork, the trophy case, the plaque, the photo of the ribbon cutting, the mission statement, the free soda machine (or the pay soda machine); even the building itself if it’s company owned. All of these are data about the founders, the principals, the charities, the activities, the culture of the office and the organization. Each item is a knot tied in the thread of a possible conversation. Each thread is a connection to your client. Weaved together they represent the relationship between you and your client. One starting point is striking up a conversation with the receptionist and learning something new about the company and the people in it. In Never Be Closing we call this being a Waiting Room Jedi.

Jane is a salesperson arriving for a meeting with a prospective client at Boston Sabre. Let’s see what kind of a waiting Room Jedi she is.
“Hello, I’m Jane Anders. Here to see Juan. You’re Mary?”
“Yes, hi.”
“Juan told me I’d recognize you by your smile. Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise… Oh, it looks like he’s still on a call. I’ll check back in a few minutes. You can have a seat. Can I get you anything?”

Jane says, “No, I’m fine,” and sits down to wait.
The hell she does.
Why make this the end of their interaction? Instead, Jane initiates a conversation.
“I noticed the health club downstairs. Do a lot of people here use it?”
“We get a special rate for being in the building. So it’s a good deal.”
“Oh, has Boston Sabre been in here a long time?”
“Three years. As soon as we moved in, the health club offered us the discount. A lot of people joined.”

“Makes sense. Why’d you move?”
“The company? It was part of a reorganization where they separated corporate from manufacturing.”

Jane has a new piece of information about Boston Sabre. “Sounds like there’s been some growth.”

“You could say! We’re already looking for more space.”
Jane wanted to know more about the corporate culture. “Are there a lot of active people here?”

“You could say that too. We have company volleyball, basketball, and softball teams. It’s a young company, and we’re a pretty social place. The teams are a good way to burn off stress.”

Jane knew about stress. “You bet. . . . Do René or Juan play?”
“See that photo in the case. Juan’s the one getting the high fives. That was just after he hit the game winner for the league championship.”

Jane could see the energy in Juan’s face. “Looks like he likes to win.”
“You could say!”

In just a few minutes of friendly interaction, Jane was able to gather several business and personal conversation starters. What might she start to surmise about the things that energize Juan? And what are the chances she’ll mention the photograph in her conversation with him?

Of course, she could have spent the time checking her e-mail. But then she wouldn’t be Jane, Waiting Room Jedi.

It’s up to you whether you spend your waiting time in your client’s habitat checking your email or being an anthropologist — looking for clues to better understand the people you’ll be meeting with. Ask the receptionist questions about what you see. Say hello to people you run into. Introduce yourself, and tell them why you’re there. Use the restroom. Ask where you can get yourself a coffee. There is no standard list of avenues to discovery in the waiting room. The more curious you are, the more you’ll learn. It’s a simple equation.

More on Taking Notes

The face-to-face client meeting is the most important piece of the sales process. Capturing everything you can from that meeting fuels the future of the relationship.

PencilsBlogIn our previous post we introduced some thoughts from Never Be Closing and The Mom Test, about taking notes in a sales meeting.

If you’ve ever tried to decipher your notes after a meeting, you’ll know why this topic is relevant. The face-to-face client meeting is the most important piece of the sales process. Capturing everything you can from that meeting fuels the future of the relationship.

You have to take notes in a meeting so you can mine what you learned in the meeting to build the relationship. It takes a certain skill to conduct a useful conversation, and capture anything useful that surfaces in that conversation.

Our last post gave some key ideas around how to record more information with fewer strokes of the pen (by using Q-notes and symbols), so you can pay attention to your client and not your notebook. Here are some other thoughts on note-taking that we culled from the two books.

Go to meetings in twos. One can take notes, writing as much as necessary, while the other conducts the conversation. The note taker can also be thinking, to make sure important threads in the conversation get followed through.

Capture direct quotes, says The Mom Test. They can be powerful descriptions of your product or service that you wouldn’t think of yourself.

Use emoticons to capture the emotion of the person as he or she said what they said. Angry, excited or blasé; the emotion (or lack of it) with which something is said, is information. How people feel is sometimes more useful than what they say.

Always debrief the meeting notes afterward with your team. Always.

And it goes without saying: Always take notes. Good luck!

Taking Notes in a Client Meeting

306cdebe-31af-4f82-9689-d4794266688cRob Fitz’s book, The Mom Test, was recommended by a friend, who is the CTO of a financial startup. It’s essentially a book about sales conversations for startup entrepreneurs. The Mom Test explains to an entrepreneur how to have a conversation with potential future customers; a conversation that truly allows you to validate (or disqualify) your startup idea. In the preview of the book the author says one of the topics he’ll cover is how to take notes in a meeting while still paying attention.

Naturally, our first thought was, “Rob Fitz has stolen our idea!” How to take notes in a meeting and still have a conversation is a Never Be Closing idea. We talk about how to effectively take notes in a meeting. We haven’t seen anyone else write about it — until Rob Fitz.

Rob’s book is really useful if you have a startup idea you want to vet. One must read to the end of The Mom Test to find out Rob’s technique on the how-to-take-notes question. Although Rob’s technique is different than ours, the premise for why and how to take notes is the same. Since it’s not easy to write down the answer to one question while asking another, the premise for effective note taking in a meeting is this: write as little as possible and have it mean as much as possible.

Rob’s technique to do this is to use a series of symbols that replace words one uses often; shorthand headings really, to help you understand and navigate your notes. Here are Rob’s symbols.

[Z-symbol for lightning bolt] Pain or problem

Π Goal or job-to-be-done (symbol is a soccer/football goal)

☐ Obstacle

⤴ Workaround

^ Background or context (symbol is a distant mountain)

☑ Feature request or purchasing criteria

$ Money or budgets or purchasing process

♀ Mentioned a specific person or company

☆ Follow-up task

Never Be Closing suggests a different technique: organizing your notes spatially on the page, by quadrant. We call it Q-notes. You write different categories of notes in different quadrants. Q-notes works like this:

The upper left quadrant is areas to explore further in the meeting- Questions. (Rob’s first four symbols might fit there.)

The lower left quadrant is information you want to remember but won’t explore further in the meeting. (Rob’s next four symbols fit there.)

The lower right quadrant is for follow-up items, Rob’s last symbol.

The upper right quadrant in the Q-notes format is the ideas you have to deliver value to your client; transmitted at the end of the meeting. (Rob’s book is more about exploratory sales conversations, finding out if someone would truly buy your future product or service. Delivering value today to your client isn’t featured in his thinking.)

The top half of your page is for use during the meeting, and the bottom half of your page is for your use after the meeting.

If you know that everything you write in the upper left quadrant of your page is a question you want to ask during the meeting, you can write less and still decipher what you wrote and what it means.

The two methods taken together allow you to capture even more information while paying attention to your future customer instead of your own scribbling. With a little practice, you can make a note (and a symbol) in a quadrant of your page and never break eye contact with your client.

Good luck!