HOW TO SELL ANYTHING

Initial Customer Meetings: 3 Planning Steps

The better you prepare for that all-important first meeting, the more likely it is that you'll eventually make the sale.
Chris Farley and David Spade in Tommy Boy waste an executive's time during a sales meeting.
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In the post "How to Give a Flawless Elevator Pitch," I explained how to segue from a social conversation into asking for an initial customer meeting.  The success of such meeting is entirely dependent upon how well you plan ahead of time. Here's how.

1. Research the company.

Never go into a customer meeting without knowing what's publicly known about the company.  Your first stop is the company's website.  Pay particular attention to:

  • Press releases. Look for "trigger" events (like mergers, new product lines, new facilities, executive departures or hiring) that might create a need for your product.
  • Case studies. These describe how the company addresses the problems of its own customers. Case studies are typically more practical than product descriptions.
  • Job openings. These indentify areas where the company needs help or where it plans to expand. This lets you know where the company intends to spend money in the future

For example, suppose you meet an SMB CEO at a wedding and, using your elevator pitch, set up an initial business meeting. Before the meeting, your research reveals that the company is preparing to release it's a new product line.

In this case, the product release is probably consuming the majority of the CEO's "mental bandwidth."  Therefore, if your product isn't something that would help them accomplish a successful product launch, you'd use the initial meeting to position for a purchase after the product release is over.

If the company is publicly held, you should also check out their latest 10Q or 10K report on the Securities and Exchange Commission website.  Pay particular attention to the sections that discuss sales, marketing and risk.  These sections explain how and where the company hopes to be successful and what they fear might derail that success.

2. Research the decision-maker(s).

Don't assume that you "know" a prospective customer just because you met and talked with the customer in a social setting.  Most decision-makers have two personas: one they use when relaxed and one they use when they're in the office.

Therefore, prior to your meeting, examine the LinkedIn profiles and their official bios (if available on their corporate website).  Use the decision-makers' history to get a sense of where they're "coming from" and, by implication, where they're headed.

For example, if a decision-maker has "climbed the ladder" inside a large firm to reach the position of VP, that decision-maker probably has a personal agenda to become a C-level executive.  Aspiring C-levels are often exquisitely sensitive to corporate politics and turf, so you'll need to address any "feather ruffling" that might result if the company buys your product.

3. Prepare the conversation topics.

Your goals during an initial customer meeting are to 1) determine if a need truly exists for your product, 2) whether there's budget that can be prioritized to pay for your product, 3) if those are both true, set the next steps that will move the selling process forward.

The potential customer's goals are slightly different.  They want to 1) confirm that you're a person with whom they want to work, 2) confirm that whatever you're selling is worthy of their attention, 3) if those are both true, set the next steps to move the buying process forward.

I mention both sets of goals because it's your job to see that all six of them are met!  In order for this to happen, the meeting must be meaningful and substantive.

Based upon the research accumulated in the previous steps, create a pre-meeting personal agenda that defines the "areas of inquiry" about which you'll need more information in order to fulfill the meeting's goals.

I used the term "areas of inquiry" rather than "questions" because reading questions from a list (or repeating them from memory) makes you sound like a raw sales trainee.  Rather than questions, write down keywords to remind you of the general areas that you need to pursue.

For example, if you were selling an inventory control system your list of topics might be:

  • Current storage costs
  • Current manufacturing software
  • Geography of supply chain
  • Financial impact of supply delays
  • Budget for new software purchases
  • Future growth plans

I recommend leaving space between the topics so that you can write notes under each topic. This not only keeps your note-taking organized but also gives you a visual cue whether that topic has been covered.

A word of warning: When you meet with customer, have a conversation; don't conduct an inquisition.  It may take multiple meetings to uncover everything that you need to know in order to help the customer make the best decision.

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IMAGE: movieclips.com
Last updated: Jul 24, 2014

GEOFFREY JAMES | Columnist

Geoffrey James, a contributing editor for Inc.com, is an author, speaker, and award-winning blogger. Originally a system architect, brand manager, and industry analyst inside two Fortune 100 companies, he's interviewed more than a thousand successful executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and gurus to discover how business really works. His most recent book is Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know. If you enjoyed this post, sign up for the free weekly Sales Source newsletter.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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