One way to look at selling is as a series of closes--each of which moves the opportunity to the next step.

Probably the most important close (as well as the one that's most misunderstood) comes early in the sales cycle, when you ask a new prospect for an appointment.

This can happen at a networking event, during a cold call, or when you call a prospect who's shown interest by accessing your website. This "initial close" is important, because once you're on the prospect's agenda, you have your proverbial foot in the door.

There is a certain art to asking for the first appointment, according to Barry Rhein, who in my view is one of the top sales trainers in the world. A while back, he explained how he trains salespeople at firms like HP to ask for an appointment.

What Are You Offering?

A key concept in Rhein's system is what he calls "Something of Value to the Customer." (I'll abbreviate it as "SoV.")

An SoV is a solution benefit (such as faster response time, better reliability), a cost savings (lower operating cost, lower training cost), or a revenue improvement (increase in sales, increase in market share). This benefit provides the reason for the prospect to meet with you.

The most effective SoVs are quantitative rather than qualitative. Most prospects have heard plenty of mushy promises; using a real number creates instant credibility and interest. For example, a solution that can "save $1 million in excess inventory costs" is far more effective than one that can merely "increase inventory efficiency."

The exact words you use when you ask for an appointment will depend upon the interest level that the prospect is showing at the time of the conversation.

The only way to know this is to sense it, which is easier in person than on the phone. Sensing interest level is important, because the better you get at it, the more likely it is that you'll get a positive response when you ask for the meeting.

What the Prospect Thinks

Prospects, after they hear a sales message, will be in one of four states:

  • Skeptical
  • Noncommittal/neutral
  • Obliging/friendly
  • Openly enthusiastic

Obviously, getting an appointment from somebody who is skeptical is harder than getting an appointment with somebody who is openly enthusiastic. However, it still makes sense to hedge your bets and ask in a way that's most likely to get a positive response.

With that in mind, here's how to ask for an appointment:

If the prospect seems skeptical: In this case, your goal is to keep the conversation going and figure out why the prospect is skeptical, while opening the possibility of a future meeting if those issues are addressed. Here's what you say:

  • "If we really could do [SoV], what would be your thoughts on learning more?"

If the prospect seems noncommittal or neutral: In this case, you're not so much concerned with answering objections, but you still want to keep the conversation going and find out whether there is enough interest to move forward. Choose either of the following:

  • "What would your thoughts be on having an initial conversation with us about [SoV]?"
  • "What is your availability over the next few weeks?"

If the prospect seems friendly and obliging: You're not concerned with objections, but you still want to keep the conversation going, in order to make the idea of an appointment seem like something worthy of the prospect's attention. Here's how:

  • "I would love to have an initial conversation with you about [SoV]. What is the best way to get on your calendar?"
  • "What would your thoughts be on an initial appointment?"
  • "How might I get on your calendar?"

If the prospect seems openly enthusiastic: You simply ask for the meeting in as straightforward a way as possible:

  • "When's a good time for us to talk?"
  • "How does this week work, or is next week more convenient?"

Matching your "initial close" to the apparent interest level of the prospect makes it far more likely that you'll get an appointment, regardless of that interest level. This is one of those situations where a little thing can make a big difference.

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