When I first began my sales effectiveness consulting career, I made a list of 20 people as my starting prospect list. They were all people I had established credibility with while working as colleagues.
Jeff was very high on my list. He was previously a general manager for a product division at my former employer. He was now CEO of a successful, high growth company. Better still, his current administrator, Pam, used to be my administrator at one point in time.
I prematurely concluded it should be easy to get on Jeff’s calendar.
When I called Pam, she was exuberant while catching up. But when I asked to get on Jeff’s calendar, her answer surprised me. She said the earliest she could put me on his calendar was four months away. My brain was racing. I know Jeff had to be busy, but four months? So I asked Pam, “why the long wait?” Her reply, “we have an IPO pending, and Jeff’s instructions were to push any meeting requests off that were not directly tied to the IPO”. I acknowledged the need to prioritize, and accepted the meeting four months away.
Then I pulled up my favorite search engine.
I was looking for any analysis on the IPO, and I hit the jackpot right away. Not as an investment, mind you, but as fodder for a provocative question. The first analysis I read by a major investment firm summed up the situation. It said that while this particular company had successfully penetrated a lucrative market, it had failed to penetrate other market segments. Their perspective highlighted a significant risk for a major downturn in the value of the stock within 12 months should this problem not be fixed. Given their notoriety and stature in the investment market, it was likely that Jeff knew about their analysis.
Besides Pam, Jeff had also recruited Joe from our former company. Joe was a senior HR executive, who was not known for turning down a free lunch. So I got on Joe’s calendar for lunch later in the week.
My plan was risky, but it paid off. Even though Jeff was busy, I figured he had to eat lunch. The size of their company didn’t warrant a cafeteria, so I was hoping that Jeff would have to depart through their lobby to get to his car for a bite to eat. I showed up for my 12:15 lunch appointment with Joe at 11:45 to camp out in the lobby. Lucky for me, Jeff’s Jaguar was parked in the front of the building.
Sure enough, at just about noon, Jeff came striding into the lobby on his way out of the building. From my perch on a couch, I waved and said, “hi” to Jeff. He smiled and greeted me warmly, but did not break his stride. I asked him if he had a minute to talk. Amusingly, he said, “no, but call Pam and get on my calendar, we should catch up.”
That’s when I got provocative.
I nodded my head at his suggestion to call Pam and added, “ok, but can I ask just one question?” Jeff lifted his chin with a nonverbal gesture to proceed, but continued his gait. I pulled the trigger with, “so what’s going to happen to your IPO stock price if you can’t break into other market segments?”
I could hear Jeff’s foot plant. He stopped, turned to me with a quizzical look on his face and asked, “Is that something you can help us with?” I said, “yes”. Jeff sat down on the couch with me for a 10 minute conversation about how I could help his sales team break into other market segments.
As you have undoubtedly heard by now, the Internet gives your prospects’ the advantage in shopping for solutions without your involvement. As a result, sales professionals have to challenge the buyer’s vision of the problem set to expand their perspective and re-engineer the vision to the seller’s advantage. However, I would also add that getting their attention is the first part of the vision re-engineering obstacle.
The next time you have a prospect that won’t engage, try this three step process:
- Use the Internet to your advantage. Try to uncover a looming issue that’s likely to have visibility at multiple levels. Perhaps it’s a product that’s late to market, or a cost to revenue ratio that’s much higher than the competition. Something that has a potential fallout. (See my article about finding Business Issues for more ideas.)
- Develop your provocative question in advance. Start with “what happens if…” and fill in the rest with the unresolved issue. Try it out on a friend first. See if it causes them to want to engage, or to run. If it’s too provocative given your rapport with the intended recipient, you can tone it down. Conversely, if it’s too mild, you can always add more power to it with the words, “to you”. For example, adding to my question for Jeff: “what’s the impact to your IPO stock price, and to you, if you can’t break into other market segments?” The dagger hits closer to the heart, but requires a lot of existing rapport to pull it off without ruffling feathers. .
- Then apply. It might have to be over the phone, or email if you can’t get to them live. And you might have to preface it with the context of your past attempts to get their attention, and/or curiosity. For instance, “I know you said that you were too busy to talk, but something has piqued my curiosity…”
Your objective is not to get the answer. It’s to get their engagement in a conversation. Jeff never answered my question, nor did I need the answer. But he did engage me in a conversation on the topic and subsequently introduced me to other stakeholders who needed help with the problem.
Finally, Joe popped up promptly at 12:15 in the lobby and we had a nice lunch.
Kevin Temple guides sales teams to be more agile and improve revenue outcomes. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Enterprise Selling Group is a leader in delivering sales training, coaching and project oversight to improve the agility of sales teams around the world.