I had a truly bizarre experience the other day. A senior (and very experienced, by the look of him) sales person actually started a conversation with me by asking me “what kept me awake at night?” I just managed to resist giving him a biological explanation.
Now, it may have come straight out of a second-rate consultative selling manual from a decade or two back, but his question struck me as being completely irrelevant and utterly out of place in world where any sophisticated buyer is likely to laugh out loud at the glorious incongruity of such a silly and uninformed question.
Are your sales people provoking silent laughter?
Which is, of course, exactly what I did. Which unsettled my friend to start with, but he at least knew by then that he’d started off on the wrong foot. It’s the silent laughter that will really get to you, mind - prospects that may appear to listen politely to the rest of the conversation but have already ruled you out for being so poorly prepared.
Solution selling, if it is to be effective, should never be a game of 20 questions. And it’s certainly not a game that benefits from such a misplaced opening gambit. Your prospects can’t afford to waste their time this way.
You’ve got to deliver value from the first meeting
Your prospect expects you to have done your research upfront. They expect you to be familiar with their organisation’s latest initiatives. They expect you to understand and empathise with the challenges that similar people in similar roles in similar organisations are wrestling with.
They expect you to bring them new ideas, to stimulate them to think differently, to introduce them to a fresh perspective, and to bring them creative and innovative ways to help their business. As long as they are learning something, they will be listening.
Start poorly, and there’s way back
But the moment you ask your first daft question, or deliver a premature sales pitch, or a share a tedious corporate presentation that is all about your organisation, rather than their issues, you will lose their attention. And frankly, you probably don’t ever deserve to get it back.
Your prospects are busy people. If you’re not bringing value to them from the first interaction, they are unlikely to be inclined to waste any more of their time on you. So please, please, please don’t ever ask a prospect what keeps them up at night.
Do your homework
If you want to have your prospect want to continue the dialogue, you have to have done your homework. And that starts with targeting the right people in the right organisations. You need to identify the common characteristics of your ideal prospects, but you also need to have a clear sense of the most valuable issues you could address for them.
You need to be prepared to bring useful insights to your first meeting with a new prospect. You need to be prepared to talk knowledgeably about the trends and issues that are affecting their peer group. And you need to share at least one useful insight or perspective that is likely to make them lean forward in their chair and want to know more.
Your opening remarks should arouse their curiosity. Your “elevator pitch” needs to talk to things that are relevant to them and not to you. And if your corporate presentation is all about your organisation, and not about the issues that are likely to be facing your prospect, don’t use it.
Challenge your prospects to think differently
I’ve shared my enthusiasm for “The Challenger Sale” by Dixon and Adamson in previous articles. They talk about taking control of the customer conversation, and that’s exactly what today’s most effective sales people are able to do.
But even the best sales person can’t do this alone. Marketing has a key role to play in doing the research, identifying the issues, and creating the thought leadership materials that can stimulate the sort of conversations I’ve been alluding to.
There’s real value in getting sales and marketing working together on this, in ditching the “all about me” corporate presentation, in collecting relevant anecdotes, and in creating conversation planners that help to engage the prospect.
There’s absolutely no value in asking your prospect what keeps them up at night. But if you can become a challenger organisation, you can certainly cause your prospect to wonder how they are going to realise the potential of their business without your help.