There is a great irony in cold calls: your targets are often as unprepared as the marketer. And such contacts invite change, which can be disruptive on many levels. It can shake prospects out of their complacent routines and comfort zones. It can force them to confront unpleasant truths about their operation—and even their personal performance. The prospect of change—along with imagined costs, time and manpower—creates a natural resistance to your message.
When these first contacts are done wrong, they leave a distinct impression: your company wasted my time and doesn't understand my business. But, when they are executed correctly, they plant a seed. They jumpstart the process of building a compelling case for change. It makes a problem real. It identifies a potential solution—all while requiring only a minimal commitment. In turn, initial contacts enable salespeople to prioritize prospects and pinpoint their motivations and reservations early. They truly offer a win-win for targets and marketers.
In "Preparing for that Initial Contact (Part I)," we saw how goal setting, reconnaissance and visualizing can make those early contacts more effective. Here are some additional strategies to consider:
• Be "On." Your targets have no clue about your successes (or pressures). They only know you from those few, precious moments over the phone or coffee. As a result, always make sure the time is about them. Keep them talking. Project enthusiasm and confidence. Focus on their issues and be prepared to answer their likely questions.
Even more, recognize you're operating from a different mindset than your targets. You’re striving to keep your job and feed a family; they're guarding the purse strings. You want to learn if they're a legitimate lead; they want to avoid uncomfortable and embarrassing truths. You're hoping to build a relationship; they're skeptical of your intentions. You'll try to close; they'll move cautiously.
Look at the world from their side of the desk…and proceed accordingly. Remember, your targets are evaluating you too. They're asking themselves, "Why should I invest time with you?" In particular, they are judging you, sometimes unconsciously, in the following areas:
• Ability to Deliver and Meet Deadlines
• Easy to Work With
• Knowledge and Preparedness
• Compatibility and Personal Connection
• Listening Skills
• Patience and Flexibility
Bottom line: they want to know if you are credible and sincere. Make sure you’re truly the person you project.
• Ask Questions. To take the next step, your targets must be engaged. During your dialogues, they should be visualizing and evaluating. Your job is to get them to come to terms with where they are, where they want to be and where they’re falling short. Once that happens, your job is to provide a plan to cost-effectively bridge that gap with minimal pain and disruption.
To do this, you need to ask open-ended questions (and follow ups) that gradually require them to confront what truly ails their operation. Such questions can fall under the following categories:
• Past, Present and Future. What would you change about (Insert Item)? In the next year or two, how do you see (Insert Item) evolving? What are you currently doing regarding (Insert Item)? How have you dealt with (Insert Item) in the past—and what happened? If you stay the course, how will that impact (Insert Item)?
• Sources of Pain. What have been your two or three biggest challenges in (Insert Item)? How has that affected (Insert Item)?
• Preferences. When you think of (Insert Item), what comes to mind? Describe how it would ideally work? Let's say you tried (Insert Item)…what would you expect to happen? How would that compare to (Insert Item)?
• Results. What criteria will you use to define success? How would this change your role or day-to-day routine?
Note: For a list of additional consultative questions, read my previous article, "Build Sales Relationships: Consultative Questioning."
And don't forget to get clarifications with questions like, "Tell me what you mean by…" or "Give me an example of…" Above all, follow up certain replies with the most critical tool in your arsenal: "why."
• Close. In that first contact, you want to gather facts and qualify. You hope to educate and energize, establish your credibility and fostering a relationship. Cultivating an advocate would be ideal. Beyond that, what is your goal? Identify one step—such as an on-site presentation—that demonstrates a genuine interest or commitment. Close on something that takes the relationship to that proverbial next step.
• Evaluate. After the call, examine where you are. Immediately jot down your plan for the next call, before you're distracted by other priorities. Consider probing for the following in the next contact:
• Level of Commitment (Individual and Organizational)
• Potential Specifications and Boundaries
• Opportunities for Value-Adds
• Expectations and Processes (On Both Ends)
• Current Suppliers (Likes and Dislikes, History, Pricing and Service)
• Potential Competition (Particularly Complacency)
• Differentiators (Quality, Price, Relationship and Service)
• Nature of Relationships Between Decision-Makers (Along with Influencers and End Users)
• Importance (or Urgency) of Your Solution
As the process moves along, mutually agree on an action plan. Keep the process transparent, logical and forward-moving. Focus on reaching out to all touch points; identify your advocates, fence sitters, skeptics and opposition. Continuously reinforce your value proposal and re-paint the proverbial picture to keep them juiced. Follow up using alternative mediums—e-mails, testimonials, case studies, WebX sessions, trade articles and pilot programs—to reinforce your message.
Today, companies expect their suppliers to be extensions of their business. This requires understanding of each other's needs, processes, history, strategies and culture. It requires honesty, shared values and mutual benefit. And it all starts with that initial contact—the research, planning, strategy and overall execution. All this sets the tone and direction. It is that first contact, and all the planning that goes into it, that turns could've-beens into cornerstone accounts.
S&MM online columnist Jeff Schmitt works in publishing in Dubuque, IA. His column, "The Personal Touch," is designed to help managers and professionals step back and evaluate how they think, interact and work. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.