Your first conversation is a make-or-break situation for you. If you do well, you’re given an opportunity to advance the buying process. If you don’t, you’re shoved out the door as quickly as possible. Or, it’s virtually impossible to set up a follow-up conversation.

So how can you ensure it’s a success? By studying and replicating what top sellers are doing. To start, top sellers spend lots of time preparing for this critical first meeting. They research their prospects in depth. Then, they scrutinise the research looking for ways that they can add value with their products or services.

Here are three critical reasons why most sellers don’t ever make it past the first meeting:
1. They don’t invest enough time preparing for the meeting.
2. They don’t understand the components of an effective initial sales meeting.
3. They focus on their own offering—not the prospective customer’s business needs.

For these reasons, prospective buyers will respond in the following ways:

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“Thanks for your time; if we ever need one we’ll give you a call.”
“We’ll think about it and get back to you.”
“It’s not exactly what we were looking for.”

What steps are necessary to pass the first test with an important account and get invited back for a second meeting?

STEP 1 – CONDUCT PRE-MEETING RESEARCH

Prior to meeting with a prospect, it’s critical to invest time understanding their business. Start your information gathering and planning early enough to give you time to create an effective meeting plan.

Start by checking out their website. Look at the “about” section; that’s where companies list important announcements and post financial results. Read the company’s annual report to identify where they’re headed and what their future priorities are. Do an online search for recent articles about them in the press.

Then, go to LinkedIn to find out about the people you’re meeting with. What are they responsible for? Do you have any connections, interests or groups in common? Look for other people you can meet with too; you never want one person to be your sole lifeline for a sales opportunity.

Researching

If the person you’re meeting with contacted your company, check out what they’ve done on your website. Did they download any special reports, watch any videos, etc.? Use this context to plan your approach.

Here are seven things to look for while you’re doing research. They’ll help you understand your prospect’s business better.

Primary business: What industry are they in and how do they help their customers?

Business unit/division: How is the company divided? What is the role of each division? Where’s the best fit?

Market segment: Who is their target audience? What characteristics make up their ideal customer profile?

Financial position: Are they growing or shrinking? Borrowing money or cash rich?

Their customers: Who are some of their customers and what are their success stories?

Key strategic initiatives: What specific objectives are they trying to achieve?

Industry trends: What is the growth pattern in the industry? How are the buying patterns changing?

STEP 2 – DETERMINE YOUR POSITIONING

After completing your research, identify where you might have a positive impact on your targeted company. While it’s tempting to say that there’s no way to know until you have a conversation, that’s not the way it works anymore.

Today’s busy, savvy and well-educated buyers expect you to have some idea of the difference you can make prior to meeting with them. And, while you can’t know the specifics of how you can help them, by doing the research you’ll have some good ideas.

The key is to leverage what you know from working with similar companies to set the stage for your conversation and your questions. You need to bring fresh ideas, insights and information to the meeting. When you do, your prospects will be more than willing to do a needs assessment with you. But they need to know you’ve invested time learning about them before they open up to you.

Based on your research of your prospect’s organisation as well as similar companies, think about these questions:

  • How are they handling things today without your product or service? What is their status quo?
  • What kinds of problems or challenges might they be facing because of how they’re currently doing things?
  • Because of their current status quo, what gaps might exist between where they are today versus where they want to be?
  • Looking at the problems, challenges or gaps that may be present, what are the potential business implications? (This is important!)
  • If this company used your products or services, what business value would they realize? (At this point, it’s a guess. But, if you’ve done your homework you should have some ideas.)
  • What difference could your product or service make? (Net it out to the best of your ability, making sure you’re focused on key business drivers that your prospect is measured on.)
Questioning

STEP 3 – PLAN YOUR QUESTIONS

Good questions are one of the best ways to demonstrate that you’re committed to helping your prospect achieve their goals. They show you care about them, which is important because most people think sellers only care about their commissions.

You’ll want to ask questions that:

  • Uncover info about your prospect’s objectives as well as the status quo relevant to your product/services.
  • Identify (or confirm) issues, problems, difficulties and obstacles they’re facing that would prevent them from achieving their goals.
  • Determine the business ramifications of these challenges.
  • Explore the business case for making a change

STEP 4 – DEFINE THE MEETING OUTCOME

As a result of this meeting, what is the logical next step? Research into sales success shows that if you’ve defined an appropriate desired outcome prior to the sales meeting, you’re much more likely to achieve it.

While you might want to walk away with a signed contract, the likelihood of this happening from just one meeting is slim to none. So don’t set yourself up for failure; plan on having multiple conversations from the beginning.

Think process. Today’s buyers don’t make snap purchase decisions. First they need to determine if it’s even worth the effort to change from what they’re currently doing. They’ll likely involve multiple people in this discussion. And, unless it makes good business sense, they’ll stay with the status quo.

Once people decide to change, they need to look at multiple options to ensure they make the right decision.

Use your typical buyer’s journey as a guideline for determining the appropriate and best outcome for your meeting. Here are some “next steps” that you could suggest:

  • Meeting with another person involved in the buying process.
  • Analysis of a specific situation or problem.
  • Demonstration of your product or service.
  • Proposal with your recommendations.

STEP 5 – PLAN THE MEETING AGENDA

Good meetings focus on your buyers and what’s most important to them—not your product, service or solution.

The following meeting agenda works well for both in-person or phone conversations. Thinking about what you’ll do ahead of time matters. It gets you clear on where you’re headed. It ensures that you stay on plan and on message, which is exactly what it takes to advance to the next step.

Strangely enough, it also enables you to be more flexible during the meeting. You can be curious about new information you learn, without losing track of where you’re ultimately headed.

Use this sample agenda as a guideline, not an absolute. The timeframes below assume a one-hour meeting.

(1) OPEN THE CONVERSATION (5-10 MINUTES)

Buyers don’t have a lot of time for meaningless chitchat and relationship building these days. Be cordial and friendly, but business-focused at all times.

Chit chat

Make the introductions

Take a few minutes to learn about the responsibilities of the people in the meeting. If others are present, make sure to introduce yourself and learn their names. Find out why they’re attending and what interests they have relative to the business issue.

Confirm times and agenda

Before you get started, double check to see if times have changed since you set up the meeting. If your prospect has to run into an urgent meeting in 30 minutes, you need to adjust your game plan or reschedule for a future time. Reconfirm the purpose of the meeting also to ensure there are no misunderstandings. You might say, “As I explained earlier, we work with high tech firms to increase brand awareness and drive sales. In our time together today, I’d like to give you a little background on how we address these issues, find out what your company is doing in these areas and see if we have grounds for further discussions. How does that sound?” Notice the professionalism and leadership in this overview. It shows that you have a clear plan for the meeting. Buyers feel better immediately; they know their precious time won’t be wasted.

(2) LEAD THE DISCUSSION (40-45 MINUTES)

You want to create a dialogue—not make a pitch. Lay the groundwork by sharing information of high interest to your prospects. Then invite them into a discussion by asking questions that make them think.

Set the stage (5 minutes)

Your prospects will need more grounding about what your company does than the brief one-sentence description given above. When you arranged the meeting, something you said was enticing to this person.

Now is the opportune time to give a brief overview of the business results a specific client achieved with your product, service or solution. Explain the challenge your customer faced, how you helped them, and the results they achieved. Also share your position statement—your insightful ideas on how you can make a positive impact on their business.

Transition to questions (less than 1 minute)

As quickly as you can, shift the focus to your prospect—where it belongs. To do this, simply say, “That should give you a good overview about how we help our customers solve their problems (or achieve their objectives). The most important thing is to find out if this makes sense for your company. In preparing for today’s meeting, I noticed that (insert data re: company’s direction, trigger event, other info uncovered in research). I was wondering how …” Unless you plan your transition, it’s sometimes hard to stop talking—especially if your prospect is goading you on with questions about your product or service. Please realize that this most likely means they’re trying to rule you out. That’s why you need to lead the conversation and why effective transitions are so crucial.

Focus on business issues (35-40 minutes)

Prior to the meeting develop a minimum of ten insightful, powerful questions you can use to lead a business-focused discussion. Decision makers are always interested in talking about their business.

They wouldn’t be taking time to meet with you unless they truly wanted help solving their problems or achieving their goals.

Have the questions handy so you can refer to them. Your prospect will be impressed by how well you’ve prepared for the meeting. But don’t give them the list of questions or they’ll just rattle off the answers.

Ask your questions in a conversational manner—not like a schoolteacher giving an oral test. Questions build relationships, establish rapport, demonstrate your competence and show that you care.

Remember, this is a discussion—not a sales pitch. Listen to their answers. Be interested. Learn as much as you can. Take copious notes of everything that’s said —not just the parts you find interesting.

Always LEAN BACK. The moment you move forward, you’re pitching. The discussion is over and the push is on. Your prospect immediately puts up defensive barriers and raises objections. Getting the sale is going to be infinitely harder unless you immediately recover and get back into the discovery mode.

Finish line

(3) ADVANCE THE PROCESS (5 – 10 MINUTES)

When you focus on questions, your one-hour meeting flies by. Even if your prospect seems oblivious to the time, it’s important not to overstay your welcome. Draw attention to the clock. See if you’re invited to stay longer. If not, it’s time to wrap up and advance to the logical next step.

Summarise your understanding

Since it usually takes multiple sales meetings to close a deal, don’t try to share everything you know, ask every question you want answered or hand out every piece of collateral in your briefcase at the initial meeting.

Instead, show your professional expertise by summarizing what you learned about their critical business issues and the value of resolving them.

Do not, under any circumstances, get into a discussion about your product or service. This will be the hardest thing in the whole world for you to do, but it’s essential. Remember, buyers don’t really care about your offering—only what it can do for them. They also realize that in a short one-hour meeting, you can’t possibly offer them a well thought out solution. They don’t expect one.

Suggest the logical next step

Then, without making a big deal of it, simply recommend a good option to move the process forward. This is the logical next step you were working toward from the onset.

You might say, “Usually when I work with companies on product introductions, the next step is to have a conversation with the product manager to get a better understanding of the launch plans already in place and where gaps might exist. Can we get a meeting set up with this person in the next couple weeks?”

If you’ve had a good discussion, it’s highly likely that your prospect will have already suggested a next step. If so, great! Get it on the calendar.

If your prospect missed an important step, offer it up as another idea: “Ms. Biggie, I’ll get going on your recommendation right away. Also, based on my experience, we need to talk with the IT department as well. Can we get that set up, too?”

Ending meetings like this advances the sales process to its next logical step. It’s honest and full of integrity. It’s just simply suggesting the next logical thing that you both need to do to determine if your offering is a good fit for their business.

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Jill Konrath is an internationally recognized sales expert who speaks frequently at conferences and sales kick-off meetings. She’s also the bestselling author of four books: Selling to Big Companies, SNAP Selling, Agile Selling, and More Sales Less Time. With over 1/3 million followers on LinkedIn, Jill has twice been named their #1 Business-to-Business Sales Expert. Jill’s career has been defined by her relentless search for fresh strategies that actually work in an ever-changing business environment. She’s an award-winning seller and sales leader. As a consultant, Jill’s clients include IBM, Oracle, E&Y, GE, 3M, Medtronic and numerous mid-market firms. Today she serves as an advisor to growing SaaS companies. Because Jill is one the front edge of what it takes to be successful today, her strategies have been featured in Forbes, Fortune, WSJ, New York Times, ABC News and Fox. In 2012, she was inducted into the Sales & Marketing Hall of Fame.