What you’re doing wrong in your first sales meeting with prospects


Originally published in American City Business Journals

By Mo Bunnell

Hands up if you recognize this typical pitch to a new prospect:

The sales exec switches on a 72-page PowerPoint presentation and starts talking…and talking…and talking.

The speech is focused entirely on the seller’s values and track record, and there is, of course, a page of client logos — including one that’s one pixelated because it was quickly added the night before the pitch.

The client is lucky if they can get a word in.

It’s a playbook that has been drilled into sales teams with popular concepts like the elevator pitch and the value proposition. I call it the “show up and throw up” mentality, and it’s deeply ineffective.

That’s because it misuses a key aspect of psychology — people like to talk about themselves.

If your aim is for the business prospect to leave the meeting feeling good, they should do most of the talking, not you.

My favorite researcher on this topic is Dr. Diana Tamir of Princeton, who found that talking about ourselves lights up our brain’s pleasure centers, mimicking the feeling of eating donuts or having sex. (I’m just quoting her.)

The power of the pleasure center is not only the solution, but also part of the problem: the salesperson loves to hear the sound of his or her own voice, even if it doesn’t get results.

This is also reinforced by the anchoring principle, where we tend to base our approach on what we start with, such as the trusty PowerPoint presentation. Add in the pressure to hit sales targets, and you have a recipe for meetings where no one ends up happy.

I’ve learned something important in training nearly 15,000 professionals: we need a 180-degree inversion of the usual sales experience. Instead of hogging the pleasure center for themselves and throwing spaghetti at the wall in hopes that something sticks, great sales experts allow the client to shine by asking thoughtful, well-researched questions.

Call it the birthday experience — it’s the prospective client’s big day, because everything is about them.

This approach provides a powerful foundation for the whole sales effort and for a long-term relationship if the client comes on board.

There are four key steps along the way:

1) Listen and learn. Ask provocative questions and get the person talking about their problems and how they think the future looks. Take notes about what they say and ask follow-up questions. You will need to do some serious homework ahead of time on the prospective client’s needs and how you might be able to meet them.

2) Create curiosity. Through intelligent questioning and displaying knowledge about industry problems, you create curiosity in the client about how you can help without forcing your expertise and achievements on them.

You can now circle back to the client with very specific solutions based on their priorities and language rather than your own. Demonstrate expertise not with an unbroken monologue, but by wrapping your knowledge into a question that lets your target know they’ve been paid attention to.

3) Build everything together. This is where you lead the customer through the journey of hiring you. The client gets to make tweaks and choices about what they like and how you’ll work together.

We’ve found magic in getting high-level agreement in this order: a) goals, b) process, c) team and d) specific pricing and terms. Each agreement informs the next, and the sequence “just makes sense” to the buyer.

It also invokes a mental heuristic called the IKEA effect — people disproportionately value what they help create.

4) Gain approval. If step 3 has been done thoroughly, getting verbal approval or having the client sign a contract should be the easiest part. The chance of buyer’s remorse has been greatly reduced because you have made a genuine effort to understand the client’s problems and how you can solve them.

By now, the client should have already agreed on all the major aspects of working together and bought into the idea, so instead of getting cold feet, they often can’t wait to start.

Here’s where the main objection from salespeople comes up: Doesn’t asking lots of questions risk making you come across as ill-informed and lacking answers?

This is a common response to the listen-and-learn approach, even from very senior sales executives. The answer is no, as long as you are asking the right kind of questions and in the right way.

Take the following example. A senior M&A law partner has a business development meeting with the general counsel of a big pharmaceutical company. The partner has done his homework, and knows that the pharma giant has been on an acquisition spree to buy up patents. So he asks about a specific clause in contracts that he knows have been causing headaches for other players in the industry, wondering if that same effect is playing out in the prospect’s world.

The partner has asked a question but at the same time highlighted his own expertise and experience in a way that taps into the client’s intrinsic motivator of curiosity.

Now the pharma company’s general counsel isn’t thinking about what the person across from him doesn’t know; he’s thinking about what they do know that could save him time, headaches and a whole lot of money. As he answers, his pleasure center is lighting up like a pinball machine.

When you ask a question, you always run the risk of asking the wrong one. The bigger risk comes, however, when you fail to ask any at all.

Mo Bunnell is the founder and CEO of the Bunnell Idea Group and author of “The Snowball System — How To Win More Business And Turn Clients Into Raving Fans.” For a gratis video series on creating demand using the principles in this article, go to http://createdemandcourse.com.