Has this ever happened to you? You’ve finally obtained the appointment. You’re looking forward to meeting with the prospect and asking the questions you carefully prepared in order to qualify the opportunity. You arrive at the appointment on time (or start the videoconference on time) . . . but before you can ask your first question, the prospect says, “OK, take it from the top. Show me what you’ve got.”
And the meeting goes downhill from there.
It's an all too common pattern. You invest time and energy gathering information, working up prices, and putting together your presentation. Then you deliver the presentation in a competent, professional manner. You believe that you are going to get the sale, or at the very least, obtain a clear decision. Instead, you get one objection after another, followed by a series of stalls, and finally, you leave with nothing more than the prospect’s promise to give your presentation some “careful thought.”
Here’s a tough, but necessary, question. Why does this kind of thing happen?
It happens because your expectations about what’s going to take place during the meeting, and how it’s going to take place, are not the same as the person to whom you’re talking. Whenever the meeting begins with that kind of disconnect, somebody is very likely to leave the discussion unhappy. And let’s be honest: Usually, it’s you.
If your goal is to maintain efficiency in your sales process (and it should be), then you need to find a way to keep the process moving forward. That means not investing precious time, effort, energy, and attention in opportunities that become stalled. Each and every sales interaction, whether it takes place face to face, via a videoconference link, or on the phone, must focus on a mutually-agreed-upon objective, one that both you and your prospect can work toward. This work should result in a clearly stated, mutually beneficial outcome that drives your sales process forward. We call this agreement an Up-Front Contract. This contract establishes clear ground rules for the conversation to follow.
An effective up-front contract always includes five elements:
- The OBJECTIVE. The reason or reasons for the interaction. Regardless of who took the initiative to schedule the meeting, both sides need to understand and agree on the driving purpose of this discussion. A typical objective for an initial meeting with a prospect might be to decide whether it makes sense to continue the discussion, perhaps with other people, at another scheduled time. If both parties agree up front that there is a shared purpose for this meeting, then there’s a clear target for both to work toward. If there’s no such agreement, and if one can’t be identified, then there is no path forward. It’s that simple.
- TIME elements. Both sides need to agree up front on the “where,” the “when,” and the “how long” of this interaction. Identify, and get agreement on, a clear starting and ending point for the discussion.
- The PROSPECT’S role. What do you expect the prospect to do prior to the meeting? For an initial sales discussion, you might ask the person to identify the three most pressing problem areas he’s most eager to discuss. What do you expect the prospect to do during the meeting? For an initial sales discussion, you might ask the person to respond to your questions and pose questions of his own.
- The SALESPERSON’S role. What will you be doing during the interaction? Typically, on an initial sales call, your role will be to pose questions and gather relevant information.
- The OUTCOME(S) you are looking for. What decisions should be made by the end of the meeting? What conclusions should be reached? On an initial sales call, it’s important to state clearly that the viable outcomes you agree to do not include a “think it over” response from the prospect.
We live in an information age, with lots of easy access to our business contacts via platforms like text and email. As a professional 21 century salesperson, you should consider it your obligation to set all of these expectations before the meeting takes place, and to confirm them in advance of the discussion with a simple email or text message to the prospect.
Here’s what a good up-front contract might sound like in action as you begin your meeting:
“I appreciate you taking some time to meet with me to discuss______. Do you still have 45 minutes? Great. As we discussed via email, you are likely to have questions for me in the areas of_____, _____, and _____. Are there any other questions you might want to cover today? Obviously, I too will have some questions for you, such as _____, _____, and _____. Is it OK for me to ask those? Great. Typically, at the end of our time together, we should be able to decide together whether it makes sense for us to go on to the next step of scheduling a second meeting. Does that work for you?”
By the way -- if a prospect is unwilling to commit to the actions necessary to reach the meeting objectives, there is no point in having this meeting! That’s why it’s important to text or email the key elements of your contract ahead of time. But don’t call it an up-front contract when you send the message; call it an agenda. From the prospect’s perspective, that’s exactly what it is.
The up-front contract is an essential selling tool that sets the priorities, puts you in the driver’s seat, and secures agreement in advance about the most important topics for your discussion. It protects you against misunderstandings and unfulfilled expectations, and it speeds up your sales process. Use it!
The first contact with a potential buyer may not be in a face to face setting or on a phone call, but via email. It’s not always obvious what we should do once we receive such an email message; move beyond the email to start a productive discussion.
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