In writing an article about the relevance to the sales process of my book Talk Lean: Shorter meetings. Quicker Results. Better Relations, I’m making a journey in the opposite direction to that travelled by the approach on which the book is based. This approach (“The Interactifs Discipline”) was initially developed as a way of increasing the effectiveness of the sales teams working under its originator, my colleague Philippe de Lapoyade – but Philippe quickly realised that in finding ways of improving the productivity of sales meetings, he’d actually found a way of improving the productivity of ANY meeting.
The approach was originally based on Philippe’s observations and analyses of the attitudes and behaviours in sales meetings which respect the magic triumvirate of producing results; doing so rapidly; and with a positive impact on the relationship. It turned out that the best way of doing this was to achieve a balance between being clear, direct and straight to the point, whilst always remaining polite, courteous and respectful. Further analysis revealed that this balance represents a universal human ideal – ask anyone of any age, gender, function, hierarchical level or even of any nationality or culture how they like to be spoken to by others and see what they say – so it’s not at all surprising that what’s effective with clients and prospects in sales meetings is also effective with colleagues, subordinates, bosses, suppliers, investors, friends, partners, lovers....in meetings and conversations of any type.
It was obviously not enough simply to identify that being simultaneously both candid and courteous is the ideal to strive for because most people find this balance impossible to achieve. They think they have to make a choice – between being clear and direct but necessarily then abrupt or even brutal; or polite and respectful but inevitably then wordy and indirect. Where my colleague Philippe added huge value was in condensing the results of his observations into a concise and simple set of principles and tools which anyone can master.
Here are five of those principles as they apply to sales visits.
1. The first 30” of a sales meeting are critical to its chances of success.
If you measure ‘success’ in a meeting not just by the achievement of results but also by the rapidity with which you do so and by the impact on your relationship with your client or prospect (and these last two are intimately linked because what client or prospect won’t be appreciative of an efficient meeting?), then the way you start your meeting is crucial. In particular, it’s essential when you make a sales call for you to announce your objectives for the call right at the start of the meeting.
It’s essential to do so at every level of that magic triumvirate of results, relationship and rapidity. A meeting is a production process. It’s like a production line in a factory insofar as it exists to manufacture a finished product - and you wouldn’t start a production line rolling without a very precise definition of the parameters of the desired finished product. In a meeting, only if you start by defining and agreeing with the other person the parameters of your desired finished product can you ensure that all of the energy in the meeting is channeled into the production of that result.
This is especially true in sales meetings, despite the frequent rejoinder which I and my colleagues at Interactifs hear from the sales people we train: “It says ‘Sales manager’ on my card – I don’t need to tell the prospect why I’m there!” We beg to differ – and for two reasons:
i) Until you announce to a client or prospect why you’re there, the meeting will mainly be generating distrust or wariness. If the other person thinks they know what you want from them but you haven’t yet acknowledged it, they will be distrustful of you. If the other person doesn’t know what you want and you haven’t yet bothered to enlighten them, they will be defensive and on their guard. The all-important generation of trust, esteem and confidence will only start happening once you’ve clearly stated your intentions.
ii) The other person may indeed think they know what your overall business objective is – to make a sale or to make more sales – but they won’t know what your MEETING objective is. A meeting objective is necessarily something which is measurable and/or observable at the end of the meeting , which is both sufficiently ambitious to give you real satisfaction if you obtain it and realistically achievable in THIS meeting with THIS person. It may not be remotely realistic, for certain products or services, to expect an order to be signed at the end of a first meeting but you still want to achieve something concrete and satisfactory. You want the other person to have said or done something (for example: “You tell me that you’ve met someone with whom you could imagine doing business”); and/or you want to have produced something together (for example “We agree on a date within the next 2 months when I can come in and present to your full technical team.”)
Saying first how you feel about announcing your objective and then stating what you’ve done to prepare the meeting will allow you to announce your objectives clearly, directly and comfortably within 30” of the meeting getting down to business. For example: “I’m conscious of taking a bold line this morning but I’d rather leave here feeling I was too bold than that I wasn’t bold enough. I’ve reminded myself of our previous conversations on the subject – and today I’m hoping to leave here with an actual signed order! How do you feel about that as a goal?”
2. The other person has the solution.
When you’re trying to get something from someone (a first order, a second meeting, an increase in volume, an improved shelf position), the person who best knows how to make that happen is the other person. You can save yourself a lot of time by just asking. “What arguments am I particularly going to need to focus on today to have a chance of you setting up a meeting for me with your technical team within the next month?”; “What do I need to do today to be sure of walking out of here with a first order?”
Be ready to take a firm position if the conditions set by the other person in response are ones you can’t meet. (“You need to lower your price by 25%”. “I can’t do that. What else can I do within reason?”) You can also qualify the question as you ask it: “What do I need to do today – other than lowering my price which I can’t do – for you to be able to place a first order with me?” Your meeting will be more efficient for both of you and produce results more quickly if you seek the other person’s specifications early on.
3. Rather than dealing with objections, it’s surely more constructive not to invite them in the first place.
“Dealing with objections” is an obsession on sales courses but in our view it’s a lot more constructive not to encourage the customer to raise them. The response “Why not?” to the prospect’s position “I’m not ready to decide today” will inevitably produce a tsunami of objections. Saying openly both how you feel about the prospect’s position and what you want and then inviting him or her to work on the solution is more likely to produce a result. “That’s bad news for me! From my point of view, I’d really like us to get this done today. What can I reasonably do at this point for that to happen?”
4. Sales arguments should stick to the facts; any subjective praise for your product should come from the customer.
A phrase like “the car’s fantastically fuel-efficient” will cut little ice with a customer. The salesman who says that is just being a salesman. An effective sales argument consists of a feature (“The car is equipped with the new XYZ fuel management technology”) followed by a benefit (“and as a result it does an average of 65mpg in the urban cycle”) followed, crucially, by an invitation to the customer to respond (“What do you think of that?”) Any praise will then hopefully come from the customer: “Wow, that’s pretty efficient!” - a much more satisfactory outcome for the salesman.
5. Listening doesn’t just mean paraphrasing
If you merely paraphrase what the customer has just said, (“If I understand correctly, you’re looking for a long-term saving scheme with a high return?”) you may well have demonstrated you’ve listened, but not that you’ve actually done something with what you’ve heard. A construction such as “Hearing you mention long-term high returns, I tell myself that I should start by giving you some information about our Stocks and Shares ISAs.” will demonstrate not just that you’ve listened but also that you’ve processed what you’ve heard.
Alan H. Palmer is UK Managing Director of the training company Interactifs and author of Talk Lean: Shorter meetings. Quicker Results. Better Relations.