Meetings That Really Matter

In the final installment in a series of "Drifts" devoted to sales strategy and tactics, we focus on the character and quality of client meetings.

At birth we possess all the tools we need to be great salespeople.

We focus...we listen...we show emotion...we create empathy. Throughout much of our early lives, we use these qualities and talents to develop and foster relationships. We share. We take turns. We make things together.

Then some of us go into sales and it all falls apart.

When you ask customers - as I have - what they truly value in a sales relationship, they all seem to recite from the same list: "He cares about my business;" "She really listens to me;" "He anticipates my needs;" "She's not always trying to just sell me something." Ironically, the most effective, most trusted sales reps are those who seem the least like textbook salespeople. Perhaps that's because the textbook is badly in need of a rewrite.

I've been speaking to audiences recently about what I call "sales call culture." Too much sales training and literature seems based on conflict theory, treating the customer as an adversary to be vanquished or a set of objections and issues to be neutralized. The young salesperson who brings optimism and empathy to the profession soon has those qualities stripped away. In their place, he learns about "objection management" and presentation skills and how to create a really spiffy PowerPoint deck. Quickly, he becomes the very embodiment of sales call culture.

What's wrong with sales calls? Having witnessed or participated in thousands of them, I can say with impunity that the model is flawed. The vast majority of sales calls are centered on some form of canned presentation and are driven by the needs of the seller. And most often, there is very little real communication taking place. Instead we witness the familiar model. Smalltalk, followed by a rote recitation of the buyers "objectives" -- which the seller rarely hears -- followed by "the pitch" or "the capabilities presentation" or "the introductory presentation" or "the product overview" or... at which point the would-be buyer mentally checks out of the process.

The answer? A fundamental restructuring of how we think about sales training and strategy.

  • TEACH ACTIVE LISTENING SKILLS. Too many sales people still don't listen to understand. Instead they're simply thinking about the next point they'll make or the next detailed follow up question they'll ask. Active listening is the cornerstone of a great meeting, but it's not something that just happens. You may be born with it, but unless it's stressed and nurtured, it soon fades away.
  • LEAD WITH NEEDS. Every customer meeting should be maniacally focused on one or two well-researched customer needs. Tight schedules and short decision-making cycles have rendered the "capabilities presentation" and the "fact-finding call" purely anachronistic: You simply won't get a second call to talk about "the really important stuff." You also won't get much time on your first call to get to the point.
  • HAVE A DISCOVERY PLAN. The most effective sales people aren't those who simply learn about their customers: They're the ones who systematically learn about customer needs. I recommend having sales people structure discovery around a specific set of potential client needs. An informed point of view about what the customer might need can be an outstanding door opener.
  • ASSUME SKEPTICISM, EVASION AND DISENGAGEMENT. And prepare for them. Even the most well-structured sales meeting can go awry based on the customer's biases, moods or inclinations. I advise sales people to recognize when things are going South during a meeting and be ready with a set of "What" and "How" questions. When confronted with a stressful meeting, too many reps try to talk their way out of it. Re-engaging the customer is always a better solution.
  • STOP TRYING TO CONTROL THE SITUATION. Every "objection" doesn't need a response and every random question doesn't need a detailed answer. Sales call culture stresses the parry and thrust of the sales process; as though coming up with the "right" answer or the "correct" response to an objection will automatically win the business. It's not about winning and losing. Often reps feel like they got the better of a customer in a sales exchange, only to lose the business to a competitor. Focus instead on strategies that keep your customer talking about problems, opportunities and concerns. This is the fertile ground where deals happen.
  • QUALIFY. THEN QUALIFY AGAIN. Woody Allen said "90% of genius is just showing up for work." I'd amend that by saying that 90% of sales genius is showing up in the right office. Sales call culture says that any meeting is a good meeting. Time being our only finite resource, I disagree. Before scheduling a meeting, ask two questions: "What do I really want and need from this meeting to move the business forward?" And "Is this person going to be able to give it to me?"

"No More Sales Calls" means no more rote sales behavior. It's an invitation to challenge your team and yourself to invest in the human relationships that underlie all great sales relationships. The result will be not only more high quality client meetings, but also more long-term business and a more satisfying sales life.