When I was running my own sales organisations rather than coaching others, I used to get incredibly frustrated with sales people who when asked about a recent prospect meeting replied that it had been “a great meeting” - but when pressed for more detail could not point to a single valuable outcome.
It’s a depressingly common problem - and your prospects feel the same way. They report that fewer than 1 in 5 meetings with salespeople turn out to be a valuable use of their time.
No wonder it’s increasingly hard to initiate a dialogue with a potential prospect, and no surprise that so many opportunities get stuck in sales pipelines with no signs of any progress…
Weak sales technique obviously plays a part, but poor planning is probably the single most important explanation for these failures. From my observations - and maybe yours - many sales people simply don’t devote the necessary time and thought to thinking through what it would take for their upcoming prospect meeting to be a success.
SUCCESSFUL SALES PEOPLE PLAN AHEAD
Neil Rackham, best-selling author of SPIN-Selling observes, “A consistent finding about successful salespeople is that they put effort into planning. Good selling depends on good planning more than any other single factor.”
It’s hard to disagree with him, but it also seems to be hard for some sales people to adopt this basic discipline. Clear, effective planning needs to happen at a number of levels - covering territory, account and opportunity strategies and tactics but also self-evidently needs to happen prior to each significant sales meeting with a prospect or customer, and this is what I want to focus on in this article.
There’s an important balance to be struck. If we make this process over-complicated or burdensome, unconvinced sales people will ignore it or pay lip service to it. The meeting planning exercise needs to be simple and concise - something that can be accomplished with a few minutes reflection, and captured on the equivalent of a single sheet of paper.
SMALL INVESTMENT. HUGE BENEFIT
By the way, if your sales people rebel against even this simple expectation, I believe that you need to do some serious talking to them. Sales people spend a little enough percentage of their time in direct interaction with customers anyway. One organisation that looked closely found that only 9% of their sales people’s time was spent in meaningful active engagement with qualified prospects, and although low, I’m not sure this is completely untypical.
Any sales person that attempts to argue that investing a fraction of a percent of their time in thinking through what they intend to achieve in their next customer interaction is time they simply can’t afford to spend is deluding themselves - and letting their manager and their company down in the process.
The degree of meeting planning that is appropriate depends on the potential value of the opportunity, but in any relatively high-value complex sales situation, I’d argue that salespeople ought to consider at least the following factors:
- Who am I meeting with, what are their goals, and what would I have to do to make this meeting valuable for them?
- What is the purpose of the meeting?
- What’s the agenda, and what are they key topics we need to cover?
- What valuable insights am I going to share with them?
- What valuable information do I want to get from them
- What predictable questions can I expect them to ask, and how do I plan to respond to them?
- What’s the best possible outcome I could hope to achieve?
- If I fail to achieve that, what is my next best fall-back objective?
SOME IMPORTANT PRINCIPLES
Here are some other important principles that can help ensure that every prospect or customer meeting results in a mutually valuable outcome:
UPFRONT CONTRACT: At the start of the meeting, you should agree the purpose, agenda and what each participant wants to accomplish during the meeting. You should share your best possible outcome and seek conditional agreement to it, subject to everyone being satisfied that the agreed goals of the meeting have been achieved.
BALANCE OF VALUE: The most effective meetings are those where all participants gain something of value from the interaction. For the customer, this often revolves around actionable information that is directly relevant to their role, organisation and situation. You should always prepare by thinking about what it would take for the meeting to be valuable for both the customer and yourself.
ADVANCE OR QUALIFY OUT: There are only two successful outcomes from a prospect or customer meeting: you must either make a significant advance or qualify the opportunity out. A “significant advance” might include discovering something that improves your changes of winning the deal, and/or getting the prospect or customer to make a meaningful commitment.
If you find these principles helpful, you can download our 1-page guide to planning effective customer meetings here (there are no forms to fill in). I hope they help your sales organisation to create and capture mutually meaningful value in every customer interaction.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bob Apollo is a Fellow of the Association of Professional Sales and the Founder of UK-based Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, home of the Value Selling System®. Following a successful career spanning start-ups, scale-ups and mature corporates, Bob now works with a growing client base of tech-based growth-phase businesses, equipping and enabling them to systematically create and capture mutually meaningful value in every customer interaction.