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Your Old Man Would Have Told a Joke
Opening a Meeting with a Prospective Client.

What do you do in the first five minutes of a face-to-face sales call? Do you take make small talk before you get down to business, or do you push through and get right to the 'real' meeting?

This article discusses how you use those first few moments of downtime; time often absorbed by walking to the prospect's office, booting up a laptop, hanging up coats, or waiting for another party to arrive. One of the key objectives for a meeting with a new prospective client is to build some rapport. The first five minutes are precious. So let's break down the meeting start, and give some suggestions for making that informal time useful.

Personal touch points to follow up on are as useful as business reasons.

The lifeblood of sales is meeting with new, potential clients. The goal of a first meeting is to walk away with a list of authentic reasons - personal and business - to follow up with the contact. But it's difficult to take an authentic interest in someone if you don't know anything about them. The opening five minutes is an opportunity to generate that interest. It would be awkward to ask, in the middle of a meeting, about that trophy on the top shelf. Better to use this startup time to uncover more about your client as a person, discover things about them that are interesting to you, and disclose related interests about you that might be interesting to them.

Let's look at a couple of different situations and consider how to meet our objectives: to create a connection with a future client, to learn something about them that will allow for personal follow up opportunities, and to open the door to some genuine interest in each other as people.

Scenario 1: You have some data coming into the meeting, and thus you can ask them about something in which they have an interest. Ideally you enter a meeting like this with some information. The internet provides opportunities today to discover interests a person has that may be related to, but are outside of, work. If a search turns something up, ask about it.

"I saw your picture with your president and his quote on behalf of homeless veterans. In what ways do you support that cause?"

Or better, "I saw your time in the Tampa triathlon. You came out of the bay in the top 20. Impressive. Tell me about that!"

These are better discussion openers than the weather, or your missed connection at O'Hare airport. It's better because you are listening for mutual interest and follow up opportunities. Depending on the answers there are a myriad of possible touch points that a brief chat about a hobby or a charitable interest can create. For example, some follow up ideas that could come from the answer to the above questions.

  • A good luck email before their next triathlon,
  • A donation to the charity they support,
  • An article about yoga for swimmers,
  • A coupon to the local triathlon equipment store.
  • Think ahead about the possible topics you'll ask about before the meeting starts, and while you're listening, note what you learn so you can use that information to create authentic follow up touch points.

    Scenario 2: You have no information. Let's say a Google search turned up nothing. You have lots of corporate level company news, but nothing interesting about the individual. Here are a couple of options:

  • Strike up a conversation with the receptionist in the waiting room about the local sports team. "Do people here like the Patriots? Is this a sporty place? Do you have a softball team, a basketball league? Does John (your prospect) have an interest in any sports?"
  • If the meeting takes place in your prospect's office, look at the pictures or artwork on the wall. If you see them standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, the temples at Ankor Wat, Mt. Everest or Cape Canaveral, ask about the photograph. You might discover a fan of Matisse, a travel junkie, an avid mountain climber or a rocket hobbyist.
  • Scenario 3: No pictures on the wall? No informed assistant? A question that's professional yet personal, and often fruitful: "How long have you been working here?"

  • A recent hire? Ask where they were before. You may turn up a mutual industry connection. A colleague in common, especially someone you respect, is a great connection to bring to the surface.
  • Long time employee? Ask what they like about the company or the area. Ask about the regional weekend getaway destinations. Ask about anything that invites your natural curiosity. And if you stumble across something you both have a passion for, even better, disclose that about yourself.
  • Informal is good. If you can build enough rapport that the whole meeting stays in this informal conversational space, even better. Keep your meeting relaxed and not a presentation or formal Q&A, and the result is often a conversational, fluid dialog. It mirrors a smooth first five minutes. One investment banker tells about a meeting he had with a client, a CFO of a large finance company. He described this CFO as a virtual 'devourer' of salespeople.

    "He could pick apart a presentation. Any aggressive assumptions, or worse, math error, would be quickly revealed and thrown back in the salesperson's face like a cake with icy frosting. Insightful, aggressive and strictly no-nonsense, he was the bar by which I measured my preparation for a sales call. One Friday I met him in his offices for a scheduled meeting and he was, for him, more relaxed than usual. I asked him a question about a piece of news that I thought might impact his business. He agreed that it was a concern, and I proposed a few thoughts I had on the subject. From there the conversation just flowed. I never once opened my laptop to show him the presentation I'd prepared; standard protocol in our industry. Yet, in our dialog we covered every item I had in that presentation. We just did it conversationally. It was the best meeting, and the most rapport, I had ever had with him. All because I endeavored, and succeeded, in keeping the meeting informal."

    Aim for an opening dialog that starts light and gently gets down to business and you'll find you went to a meeting and a conversation broke out.

    The first five minutes is the time to find out about who your prospective client is as a person. See if you share a mutual interest or view of the world. Simple personal connections can be more influential in whether a prospect becomes a client than a good product or service fit. Because put simply, people prefer to work with people they like. Knowing something about someone is a prerequisite for enjoying their company. So use the first five to find out about them and to disclose about yourself, and let that lead to a relaxed dialog.

    And remember it's a two way street. Your client has an interest in finding out a little about you as well. So, have a few possibilities in mind and then let your natural authentic curiosity come out.

    Or, you can always tell a joke...

    2009 by Tim Dunne

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