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The Personal Touch: Preparing for that Initial Contact (Part I)

My high school coach liked to say, "You get back what you put in." At the time, I figured his words were a smokescreen for sadism. Every morning, coach would drag us to practice, to repeat the same drills day-after-day. The fatigue, heat and monotony drained us. And when practice was over, we plodded home, loaded up on "carbs" and crashed.

Yet, we somehow mustered the will to return at supper time to do it all over again.

Looking back, coach had a method behind his seeming madness. He wanted to know who shared his vision and values, who would endure and sacrifice at crunch time. Beyond the physical and mental preparation, coach wanted to instill qualities we could take beyond athletics. He trained us to keep our heads when the pain and exhaustion hit. He broke us down and re-built us so we would act without thinking. And when the unexpected popped up, we knew how to adjust. Most important, he imparted an enduring sense of faith and pride, to carry us through when adversity struck.

Coach also taught us plenty about sales, even if we didn’t recognize it then. In particular, he reinforced how important it is to prepare. In practice, we simulated our opponents, studied tendencies and revisited the fundamentals and set goals. We crafted a game plan and executed it, knowing we only had one shot to get it right. Sound familiar?

Want to achieve better results in sales? Start with those initial contacts and consider the following strategies:

• Know Who You Are. Think about your value proposition. What problems are you solving? Are you reducing costs? Saving time? Removing red tape or clutter? Increasing revenue? Amplifying quality? Take it a step further. How do you make the decision-makers, advocates and end users look better? How do you help them get what they ultimately want, such as status, security or simplicity? And what are your advantages over anything similar?

Face it, no one welcomes interruptions. A sales pitch, by definition, is just that. As a result, invest some thought into why you’re calling – and offer something real. Calibrate your pitch for maximum impact, knowing which images and propositions intensify their curiosity.

Inject an element of surprise, too. Go beyond your customer profile and boiler plate benefits: discern uses and needs your targets haven’t anticipated. Bolster your credibility by dropping the occasional name, statistic or real world tie-in. Most important, make sure your targets can visualize how to use your solution. And prove why it is relevant, in 15 seconds or less.

• Set a Goal. A first contact is like driving with a gaping blind spot. There are so many variables that you don’t yet know: hot buttons, sources of pain, decision-making processes and hierarchies (formal and informal), history and buying styles. Despite this, you need to quickly step into your targets’ shoes, exchange value for time and size up whether they have true incentive and will to purchase.

Before you make that first visit or call, first understand what you want to accomplish. Is there particular information you need to gather to make an educated assessment? Are there actions you want targets to take to demonstrate sincerity and buy in? Do these actions represent measurable progress and align with the larger sales process? Are there specific qualities that make certain targets worthy of future time and energy?

Here are some sample objectives for an initial contact:

• Establishing rapport
• Positioning yourself as credible and memorable
• Identifying day-to-day operations, existing solutions and impact of current limitations on touch points and corporate strategy
• establishing the decision-making authority and process (including timelines and benchmarks)
• ascertaining budget and buying cycle
• Educating on business trends driving your solution (and the measurable results you produce)

Remember, your goal is to qualify, whet their appetite and lay groundwork. Don't try to do too much beyond that.

• Conduct Reconnaissance. Before reaching out, learn everything you can about a company. Start with the industry. Surf the Web and scrutinize trade magazines to learn about the trends and issues shaping their marketplace. Pay special attention to advice from industry thought leaders; you can leverage it later. Similarly, look to exterior connections, such as customers, suppliers and associations, to potentially open doors for you. The company website and Hoover's are respectable starting points too.

Non-traditional sources can supply even more valuable data, particularly on individuals. For example, textbook sales reps can uncover a professor's temperament and instructional methods via ratemyprofessors.com. Dogpile or Linkedin can impart information like job histories, personal viewpoints and community activities on contacts. Of course, scrolling through their Facebook friends can reveal mutual connections too.

Most of all, consider starting out at a lower level like administrative. Here, you can probe and gather intelligence with little risk. Use this time to uncover how to effectively approach decision-makers. Learn how they conduct business, the politics involved and your target's role. Pinpoint their challenges, whether it's lack of expertise, flat growth or sense that they’re falling behind or over their heads.

The front lines often understand the realities better than the corner offices; they live with the compromises and limitations every day. They know what it will take—a compelling event, regime change or emotional trigger—to open an organization up to change.

• Visualize. Athletes often imagine the intended result before competing. They picture themselves draining the winning jumpshot or breaking the finish line ribbon. Sales is no different. Mentally rehearse that first contact in your head. How will you introduce yourself? Put the other person at ease? Forge a connection? Do you know the questions you’ll ask, along with their context and purpose in the large scheme? Have you mentally anticipated their objections and stalls—and how you'll respond?

Many first conversations will naturally careen off course. Competitions rarely unfold as expected either—that's why we watch. The key is to stay composed and patient, knowing you have a blueprint and an end result as your fall back.

Ready for Game Time

We've all heard the cliché, "those who fail to plan, plan to fail." Coach certainly drilled it into us—and I can't thank him enough. Tomorrow, we’ll look at how self-awareness consultative questioning and self-evaluation can help you further navigate those initial contacts successfully.

Note: For more on cold calling best practices, Click here to read Part II

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 jschmittdbq@mchsi.com.