Is Your Sales Process Linear, and Where Does Client Research Fit?

You should be able to describe your sales process in linear fashion. But that doesn’t mean you necessarily do it that way.

rhumbaThe Productive Selling Process is a detailed process that follows discrete steps. Adopt it, and try to implement it exactly, and your process will still be different. Try as you might to be faithful, you’ll change things, add tasks, move tasks to different places, and do things in a different order.

It will be different because it’s yours.

You’ll decide to do some things differently or asynchronously. Sometimes, you’ll skip a step, but when you do you’ll always know why you’re skipping it. When you know what you need to do because you’ve done it often enough that you don’t have to think about it, you’ve moved from conscious competence to unconscious competence. You’ve internalized a process. And, if you continue to debrief your sales process, you’ll continue to refine what you do.

Client research is often one of the steps good salespeople do in a non-linear fashion. Imagine, you’ve just secured a meeting with a client you’ve wanted to meet. Now you’re ready to sit down and do the research to prepare for the meeting. In the Productive Selling process this means learning the basic background information that is relevant to the client, and generating five questions about which you’re curious.

But you’ve been tracking this client for months. You and your analyst have been storing articles in Evernote. Every Monday morning or Friday afternoon, or while you sip a beer on Tuesday between innings of the ball game, you flip through the trade rags, or search Yahoo news, or do a Google search for this company and client. You’ve built a habit for how and when you do research, so when it comes time to do your research for a meeting you’ve secured, you’re already done.

You should be able to describe your sales process in linear fashion. But that doesn’t mean you necessarily do it that way. Life is non-linear. You’ll find that as you practice your process, as you live it, it will take a different form — a form that fits you.

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!

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.