Following last week’s post describing a sales meeting, I’ve been asked why I don’t start the meeting out by asking the prospect for permission to do things in a different way.
The idea being that after explaining my view that the traditional sales meeting setup doesn’t serve anyone, I’d get their buy-in to running the meeting with Clean being more overtly used.
I have tried that, and it often backfired on me.
I think the reasons it doesn’t work for me are multifaceted and worth exploring because some of them are unique to my circumstances. I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from seeking explicit permission if they can get it, because it’ll give you more latitude in how you conduct yourself, and it’ll help the prospect see that you are truly different.
To help people figure out the differences that might make a difference for our situation, I thought it would help to go into more detail about how we start and end meetings, and the considerations at play.
Going forward I’ve found a pattern that works for me that doesn’t require asking for any permission up front, so I’ve stopped trying to find a way to successfully do so.
It would be wrong to in this case
In the specific circumstance I was describing, I’m working with:
- a German company (so you have some cultural issues to contend with).
- Who are sufficiently late to the party in deploying this kind of solution that they deserve the description “conservative” in their approach to new things. They are very much “Right side Chasm” in the Technology Adoption Lifecycle terminology.
- I’ve been told what to do – I was invited for a very specific role in a bigger meeting. Expectations have been set, plans made etc.
With that context, for this audience I need to come over as respectful, safe, responsible, knowledgeable and easy to work with. I am not going to anything to rock the boat. “Maverick” would be the worst impression to give, especially in the first 10 minutes of the meeting.
If I was working with a California-based Biotech startup I might well take a different approach – “We all know these meetings often fail to serve the needs of all of us. We have a different approach – want to try it?”.
So the specific context is an important consideration, and overrides anything else I might feel about “best practice”.
A Reputation Proceeds Me
For those who aren’t familiar with the Enterprise Software Sales dance – the sales person is generally considered (with good reason) to be a manipulative liar willing to do anything to get a quick sale.
The situation is so bad, most prospects would rather not speak to a sales person at all. The sales person is something they have to endure to get to see the product.
What this means is that when I stand up, they’re not feeling well disposed to us. Hopefully they’ll warm to me as we go along and I’ve demonstrated some credibility, but in the first 10 minutes, they are very much in contempt.
I have this problem even though I try hard not to be identified as a sales person – to the extent that I have a colleague with me with the “Sales” job title and I endeavour to act a little geeky.
What I used to do
I used to say something like “It would be really helpful if I could just understand a little bit about you before we start, so I can tailor the demonstration”.
This didn’t work.
Sometimes I’d get permission to ask a few questions, but not too many. And often they’d be answered by the most senior or pushy person in the room which means I’ve got no network built up. Plus I can’t revisit any of that stuff later in the meeting because I’ve been “told” it.
Sometimes I’d get waved on – “no that’s fine, just show us the product”. At that point, I’ve been told I can’t ask any questions at all, so I’m completely stuffed!
I’ve never had a positive “Oh that’s a good idea, let’s talk” reaction.
I think the refusal/reluctance comes from:
- A genuine feeling that their situation doesn’t matter, what matters is the product and features. Which isn’t the case, but they don’t know that.
- A fear of having their internal problems or inconsistencies exposed in an uncontrolled way, or to an external party.
- A feeling that the more they tell us, the more opportunity we’ve got to manipulate them.
- Not wanting to “waste” time on things that don’t matter.
How I start meetings now
Now I generally start off with something like “What caused you to to make time for us?”, or in this case I did something like “What would you like me to do?”.
Once they’ve told us that I’ll say something like “So I’ve got a couple of slides just tell you a little bit about us so you know who you are talking to and then I’ll show you the product, ok?”.
I always get agreement for that “about us” segment, because that’s what they are expecting. In fact they’re probably resigned to 30 minutes of my company history, ownership, etc 🙂
I really do have the company introduction down to a few minutes of telling them some interesting stuff about us, so when I finish that they’re starting to feel a bit more positive.
In my presentation I have about 6 slides which I don’t really use except for one in particular which has some content on which I can get them to interact with – which is key, because it’s the first time I get to ask them a question. This starts them off on the process of this being a conversation not a lecture.
Never ask permission
I’ve got a theory that you should never ask permission in a sales meeting, because if they tell you “No” you have to respect that and you’re stuffed at that point. At the very least, you won’t be working at your best.
This is particularly the case when you’re perhaps asking them a question they aren’t qualified to answer. 20 years of doing this, I know that having a conversation is important – but they don’t. They think they understand their problem, and just need to see our product and have the features explained to them.
I also think it is a bit manipulative asking for permission to do something when you aren’t ok with that permission being refused. You aren’t really asking for permission at that point, you’re playing mind games with them.
How we end meetings
As we’re coming to the end of the time, I’ll often go back to what they said at the start about why they were here, and check that I’ve done what they wanted. This is to:
- Genuinely check that I have done what they wanted, and give me the opportunity to fill any missing gaps.
- Demonstrate that I did indeed pay attention to what they wanted, and care enough to check with them that I made them happy.
- Give me a low-pressure way of closing them on something to gauge the mood of the meeting.
When the meeting comes to an end, we don’t ask “Shall I call you next week” partly because it sounds a bit powerless, but also we don’t have an option if they say “No thanks”.
So what we do now is say “What would you like to have happen next?”. This generally produces really good results – they’ll often tell us their entire buying process right then, and frequently ask permission to ask follow up questions.
Note that by the end of the meeting we’ve got a lot more credibility which is why they are often so open about their buying process, which is something prospects often attempt to hide.
We tend not to need to do anything for what they want to have happen next, as it is almost always “We need to think” or “We need to prepare a proposal to get the money”.
I’ll often acknowledge what they want in some way (repeat it back) and add “And I’m sure from my side my colleague will be in touch at some point just to say hi”.
It is about respect
I’ve come to feel it is more respectful to the prospect to just get on with doing what they’ve asked, rather than request up-front permission to do things in a different way.
If I ask at the start, they’re faced with a decision they can’t really make (they don’t have enough information about me, or Clean) which they are then committed to. It’s almost a trick.
If I don’t force them to commit to my rules, I can react and adjust to how they are in the moment. Just because I think I know how things will go doesn’t mean it will, and I’m able to adapt what I do as needed to get the best result for them.
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