Monday, May 9, 2011

For Maximum Impact, Plan Your Sales Calls

I had been in a rainmaker role for several years before someone challenged me with a simple piece of advice: Always plan your sales calls. Like some of you, I was pretty good at winging it. With little forethought, I could come up with effective questions, carry a conversation, offer sound advice.

But how good I might have been wasn't really the issue; it was a question of how good I could be. The opportunities for improvement were readily evident--great questions I thought of only afterward, key information I realized later I still lacked, no established basis for the next call on that client. Sound familiar? Perhaps you too would do well to better plan your sales calls.

At a rudimentary level, every sales call involves just two primary activities: (1) asking questions and (2) providing help and advice. Notice I didn't include "selling." That will mostly take care of itself if you do the two primary activities well. This focus also provides a simple framework for planning your sales meetings, as illustrated below:

Identify information gaps. A good starting place is to inventory what you know about the sales opportunity and what you don't. Identify information gaps by making a list of everything that is important or helpful to know and then taking note of what gaps remain.

Early in the sales process, of course, the list of information gaps will be lengthy, more than you can address in a single sales call. So the next step is to prioritize what information you'd like to collect in the upcoming meeting with the client.

Plan your questions. With gaps identified, you're ready to consider what questions to ask. To do this well, you don't merely work off your list of missing information. Research demonstrates that how you ask questions matters, both in the wording and the sequencing of the questions.

This was the core theme of the classic book SPIN Selling, which was based on probably the most extensive research into sales techniques that has been done. I've modified that book's approach and created the "Question Progression," which you can read about in this post.

The purpose of the Question Progression isn't to create a script. Rather it's a general framework of questioning to fit within the flow of the conversation. But there's no doubt, in my experience, that planning questions substantially helps you uncover the information and insights you need, not to mention advancing the sales process in the direction you want.

Develop your entrée Your "entrée" is a fair exchange of value for the client's precious time. Typically this involves sharing information and advice that helps the client address a pressing need or problem. Consultant Charles Green calls this "samples selling," basically giving the client a small portion of the consulting and problem solving ability you hope he can be persuaded to hire you for.

This is the counterbalance to soliciting information from the client. It's sharing something of value in return. You should identify your entrée even before making the appointment, as it will, ideally, serve as the motivation for the client wanting to meet with you. In planning your sales call, you are now developing how you intend to share the information and advice you promised.

Obviously, asking questions, listening to the client's responses, and delivering your entrée all compete for the same portion of time. This is a key reason why planning the meeting is so useful, because you are giving thought to how best to use limited minutes with the client. So planning questions and developing your entrée must go hand in hand.

Determine what actions might follow the sales call. Defining next steps is a critically important aspect of a successful sales call. It took me a while to figure this out. I often struggled to come up with a good entrée for the subsequent meeting with a client. Then I learned that this was best done with the client's input near the close of the call.

Besides establishing the basis for the next sales call, this approach also enables you to better gauge the client's commitment to continuing the conversation. If you can't get agreement (and specific commitment) to a follow-up meeting, then that strongly suggests that the client isn't all that interested. It may be better to move on to better sales prospects.

In planning your sales call, it's a good idea to come up with some possible follow-up actions or reasons for a subsequent meeting. Then you're better positioned to suggest next steps than in trying to come up with something on the fly.

Whether it's making sales calls, preparing proposals, or executing projects, it's always better to plan the work before you start. Sure, you may be able to get by without it, but you'll never be as good as you could be had you planned it in advance. Time in front of a prospective client is too valuable to leave it to spontaneity. Have a plan instead.

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