The sales process is a series of steps towards a mutual commitment--the contract. But you're not likely to get there unless there are incremental commitments between buyer and seller along the way. That's simple logic, but a surprising amount of sales pursuits in our profession languish in limbo because we fail to climb what I call the "Commitment Ladder."
The Commitment Ladder is a sequence of increasingly greater commitments between two parties leading to the ultimate desired level of commitment. It's much like courtship, where commitment to each other grows as trust and mutual benefit increases. Ask for too much commitment too early in the relationship and you're likely to be rebuffed, if not dropped. But ask for too little commitment and you risk not developing the relationship at all.
Technical service sellers are more prone to the latter shortcoming. Certainly I was earlier in my career. I worked hard to serve the client, to maintain regular contact, to build affinity. But I was often lax in asking for a reciprocal level of commitment on the client's part, and I often got burned because of that omission.
I thought I was building relationships, but effective relationships require mutuality. Too often I was the only party investing anything of significance in the relationship. It may seem productive for a while, but it rarely results in making the sale. I see many technical professionals in sales roles today making the same mistakes I did.
So let me encourage you, if you have responsibilities in sales, to take the following steps in climbing the Commitment Ladder:
Determine in advance of each sales call what you'd like to ask the client to do. One of the smartest things I ever did when I was in business development was to develop the discipline of planning every sales call: What did I need to learn? What questions would I ask? What should the next steps be following the call? That last question included: What commitment did I want to seek from the client to confirm mutual interest in advancing the relationship? Don't avoid asking such questions routinely; they enable you to better gauge how well you're really doing with the client.
Ask for increasingly greater commitments over time. Getting to know the client better over the course of several sales calls is a good thing, but not nearly good enough. You want to gradually gain the client's trust and commitment. With each subsequent meeting, you should seek evidence of that growing mutual commitment. For example, early in the process, you might be seeking introductions, follow-up meetings, increasingly detailed information about the client's needs. Later, as the relationship developments, you might ask for things like an extended strategy meeting, a visit to your office, or a trip to another client's facility that is relevant to this client's needs. Increasing commitments signal progress in the relationship.
Move quickly to schedule commitments. The best time to schedule the next meeting with the client is the current meeting. Whatever request the client may agree to in terms of future actions, it's best to get it scheduled immediately if you can. I've had clients make such commitments in the past without getting the appointment right away, only to find it nearly impossible to later get it on the calendar. Haven't you? Here's a general rule I advise for your sales calls: Always determine the next step and get it scheduled before closing the meeting.
Don't be afraid to hear no. I've mentioned the importance of seeking evidence of mutual interest in the relationship. But the opposite result is equally valuable. If the client is not interested in doing business with you, it's best to discern that early (remember, he's not likely to tell you that, so you're seeking signals that will show you). This allows you to redirect that time to other, more promising prospects. If you're not actively asking for commitments (i.e., climbing the Commitment Ladder), you can waste a lot of time and energy on clients who are only interested in adding you as another "bidder." Or taking advantage of the free information and advice you're offering.
One of the main reasons we don't ask for more commitments, I'm convinced, is the fear of being rejected. Sometimes we get too emotionally invested in trying to win over a particular client who has never shown any real mutual interest. Don't get fooled. Your time is too valuable to waste. Rigorously seek mutual commitments from prospective clients as a way to test and validate the state of the relationship. Both parties benefit when the truth is revealed earlier rather than later.