Disqualifying You

disqualifiedBusiness people are busy. When you sit in front of a new prospective customer or client for the first time, you should have a set of potential outcomes that move the process and the relationship forward. One thing you’d like to be able to judge is the success of your meeting. To paraphrase Rob Fitz, author of The Mom Test, a meeting that “went well” is probably a failure. You can be sure your client has a potential outcome that will keep the meeting from being a failure from their perspective: disqualifying you.

Disqualifying you as someone they will ever talk to again is a useful outcome. From now on, they won’t waste any time fielding your calls or answering your emails.

(By the way, for you, disqualifying them as a potential client is also useful: in order to disqualify them, you have to learn something.)

If you disqualify each other for appropriate reasons, it may not be the outcome you wanted, but it’s progress. But if you get disqualified because you didn’t prepare, asked the wrong questions, or didn’t listen, you just used up your get-out-of-jail-free card, that one first meeting when people are willing to meet with you without knowing if you are useful.

The first face-to-face meeting is the most important moment in the sales process. It’s useful to behave like it is. Don’t waste that chance. Enter that first meeting with a plan.

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.