We’ve been leading an effort to help one of our clients choose a long-term strategic partner to jointly build a business in the healthcare sector. The project has been unbelievably helpful to us in thinking about what it takes to build trusted relationships with customers, especially in the business-to-business setting.

In a recent column, we discussed the ways to highlight your capabilities for potential clients. Equally important is how you respond to their initial request. The way you treat this inquiry sets the tone for follow-up discussions and often makes or breaks the deal.  Here are the four essential steps in responding to a customer’s inquiry:

1.  Introduce Yourself

This may seem obvious, but too many businesses go right into trying to respond to the customer without establishing baseline credibility. Begin by building a foundation for why you are qualified to be in the conversation and why you have the ability to help them.

Be careful here, however: You can go overboard with your pitch. Putting word’s in a prospect’s mouth about why they should choose you can alienate them. There will be time for selling a partnership or product–after you have built an understanding of their specific need.

2.  Ask Questions

Switch into advisor mode in order to explore the prospect’s true needs. Listen first so that you can develop a deep understanding of:

a.  What do they want and what do they think they need?

b.  What is absolutely necessary in their mind?

c.  What is a “nice to have” benefit?

d.  What is not important to them at all?

Your natural tendency will be to focus on the attributes your business has that will differentiate you and win the sale. But in many cases, those things are not important to prospects. Focusing on these “nice to have” or “not important” factors will, at best, give the customer the wrong impression, and at worst, turn them off to furthering the conversation.

3.  Make a Recommendation

Once you have heard their wants and needs, come back to them with a solid, confident recommendation. After all, you are the expert, you now understand their need, and they want your advice. It’s perfectly okay, and even advantageous, to offer two or three alternatives. Make it clear that your recommendation is an opinion, not a demand, and that you’re willing to be flexible.

4.  Customize to Their Needs

Now you can get into a real discussion about how to move forward, which includes fine-tuning your offer to meet their specific need. This could require some flexibility around price, approach, or incorporating special requests. Since you’ve already educated the prospect on your capabilities, have a full understanding of their need, and have provided your point of view, you can turn the discussion over to them regarding how they can make the deal happen.

How well does this approach work? In our recent experience with a client in the healthcare business, a partner who followed the process above ended up in detailed discussions about how specifically they could close a deal, while other consultants who did not use the process were left out of final discussions and ultimately lost the work.

Send us your questions or comments at karlandbill@avondalestrategicpartners.com.