THERE are more contradictory opinions about how to handle an executive sales conversation than there are about how to reduce the government deficit. In the last year, I have heard all of these statements about the “right way” to sell to top executives:
- “You have to start right away with good questions. Your focus should be on uncovering the client’s needs and priorities.”
- “You should start by talking about your firm—who you are and what you do. You can’t just walk into a meeting with a prospect and start grilling them with questions!”
- “The most effective questions are broad, high-level, open-ended ones like ‘What keeps you up at night?’ and ‘What are your top three priorities this year?’”
- “You can’t go in and ask an executive to tell you about his business. You have to do your homework and know what the major issues are in advance.”
There is a little bit of truth—and falsehood—in each of these claims.
So what’s the right way? Actually, it depends on which of four types of executive sales meetings you are walking into. There are a few basic building blocks of an executive sales conversation—essential tools to help you advance the relationship—and the decision about which ones to highlight and how to sequence them will depend on two fundamental questions:
- Who asked for the meeting? You or the client?
- Is this an existing client? Or a prospect who doesn’t know you very well or at all?
If you combine the four choices that are inherent in these two questions, you get a two-by-two matrix with four quadrants, shown in the upper-left of this newsletter. Your conversational strategy will be somewhat different for each quadrant. For example, you can’t ask for a meeting with a prospect who doesn’t know you, and then walk in and immediately start grilling them with questions about their business!
Let’s look at each one of these four scenarios in turn.
Remember your basic building blocks for effective sales conversations:
- A point of view about markets, competition, best practices, etc.
- Short, relevant, engaging client examples to describe your firm
- Credibility-building questions and agenda-setting questions
If you have not read it, have a look at Power Questions–now the No. 1 book on Amazon in Business Communications. It has over 100 questions specifically for use in client sales meetings.
Quadrant 1: You ask for a meeting with a prospect
You lead off
In this case, you cannot simply walk in the door of someone’s office and kick off the meeting by peppering them with questions. You have to first earn the right—but at the same time, you don’t want to bore them to death with descriptions of your firm and talk too much at the outset. You also have to carefully set the agenda. So here is the right sequence for this Quadrant:
1. Set the agenda: “I view this as a chance for us to get to know each other’s organizations and, potentially, see if there’s an issue of mutual interest that is worth pursuing. I thought I’d start by briefly describing our firm and giving you a couple of examples of recent client work we’ve done in your industry. Then, I’d like to turn it over to you and ask you about your most significant priorities. At the end of our conversation, I think we’ll both know whether or not it makes sense to continue the dialogue.”
2. Briefly describe your firm and give a client example. Don’t pull out a PowerPoint presentation! Mention your value proposition in one sentence (e.g., “We help companies accelerate their strategy implementation”). Talk about your firm by way of a value-added “point of view” about the industry, function, or market (50-100 words maximum). Then give a relevant client example (50-60 words—no more!). This should only take about 2-4 minutes at the very most. Repeat: Your introduction should only take a few minutes.
3. Turn it over to the prospect. You point of view and examples should have clearly highlighted some very critical issues that you help clients with. Say something like, “Can you tell me something about your issues and the priorities you’re focused on right now?” If you’ve done some real research on the organization, you can be more specific—e.g., “I know that one of the major planks of your strategy is globalizing all of your key business processes. What demands is this making in your area? What challenges does it present for you?
4. Ask thoughtful, open-ended questions to explore their issues. You must also add value by citing additional examples of client success, best practices, market trends, and so on. Ask about urgency, value, stakeholders, previous efforts to address it, and so on.
Quadrant 2: You ask for a meeting with an existing client with whom you are trying to develop more business.
You lead off
As in Quadrant 1, you asked for the meeting. So the client—even if they know you well—will expect you to lead off. Even though you know the individual, you cannot ask to see them and then start asking question after question! So here is best order to employ your business development “building blocks”:
1. Share a point of view about their business. Provide your client with a set of observations about their business which are at the heart of the opportunity you would like to discuss (“We’ve been working in the XYZ division for over a year, and I’d like to share a couple of observations with you about that business. I think there are some unexploited opportunities there.”)
2. Gauge the client’s reaction. Ask a general question like, “What’s your perspective on this?” Do they dismiss what you’ve said? Are they defensive? Or do they engage in a conversation with you? You’ll know pretty quickly.
3. Ask thoughtful, open-ended questions to explore their issues. You must also add value by citing additional examples of client success, best practices, market trends, and so on. Ask about urgency, value, stakeholders, and previous efforts to address it.
Quadrant 3: A prospect calls you and asks to meet.
They lead off
This a great Quadrant to be in, because it means a prospect is calling you based on your brand, reputation, speaking and publishing, or a warm referral. Because of this, the order of events changes. In this case you CAN start the meeting with questions.
1. Have the client start by describing their business and problem. For example, you might kick off by saying, “Can you tell me what interested you in meeting with me?” Because they have called YOU, you have a license to ask questions about their business, their specific issue, and so on.
2. Ask thoughtful, open-ended questions to explore their issues. You must also add value by citing additional examples of client success, best practices, and market trends. Ask about urgency, value, stakeholders, previous efforts to address it, and so on.
3. Describe your own business in response to their questions. Use the same “building blocks” as you would in any other business development meeting: Briefly state you value proposition for clients, share points of view about the industry, describe what you find works and doesn’t work, talk about a couple of brief client examples, and so on.
Quadrant 4: A client calls you and asks to meet.
They lead off
This is the most wonderful Quadrant to be in, because it means your client is treating you like a trusted advisor. They have a problem and trust you to discuss it with them and potentially solve it. Again, because the inquiry comes in from the client, you CAN start the meeting with questions.
1. Have the client start by describing the issue they’ve contacted you about. You probably won’t even have to prompt them to begin.
2. Ask thoughtful, open-ended questions to explore their issues. As in every executive conversation, you must add value by citing additional examples of client success, best practices, market trends, and so on, as appropriate for the issue the client has raised. Ask about urgency, value, stakeholders, previous efforts to address it, and so on.
Before any client sales conversation, remind yourself which type of meeting it’s going to be. Just by identifying which of these four Quadrants applies most to your situation, you’ll have the bulk of your strategy already figured out.
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