It's not easy being a "prospective customer" in today's highly diluted and complex market.
If you're the targeted prospect, you are constantly barraged with marketing messages and annoying sales pitches. Whether the pitch is presented on the radio during a morning commute, in a postal mailbox, by email, over the phone, or face to face, you may be overwhelmed by the number of companies and messages seeking your limited time and attention.
If you are a business professional trying to get your prospect's attention, then you may be experiencing how difficult it has become to cut through all the noise and have a respectful, insightful, and mutually valued conversation with that person.
Given this situation, your initial contact with a prospective customer leaves little margin for error. The first conversation is the most critical and least forgiving point of the entire sales process. Within the first 20 seconds you must simultaneously establish relevance and credibility—or you will be dismissed as just more marketing noise in the relentless barrage of sellers looking for attention.
Consider how you or your colleagues respond when a prospect asks the simple question, "What do you do?" Do you respond with a cleverly crafted and crisply canned "elevator pitch"? Unfortunately, that is the type of conventional advice coming from the majority of sales trainers. But what types of reactions are elicited by this pitch? The prospect's reaction will typically not be what you hoped for or expected. Perhaps you have a sense—even a suspicion—that there might be a better, more effective way to engage your prospective customer in the first few moments of your interaction with them.
One problem is that these pre-packaged sales pitches hit our prospects from all directions. The elevator, it seems, is full of salespeople with an arsenal of stuff to shoot at their prospects. All too often, listeners respond by saying, "Oh, really... that's interesting." Of course, that response is a good indicator they're not interested at all.
What are the consequences of this situation? Most likely, a wasted opportunity. Not only do we waste the time of our prospects, we also miss opportunities that might have opened up a quality conversation if we had managed this initial contact in a more effective way. Indeed, in the prospect's eyes, we diminish our own credibility by presenting ourselves as just another self-absorbed vendor.
If the opportunity is in fact real, the response we should be getting is: "That sounds as if you could possibly help us. How do you do that?" Another positive outcome could be, "We've been discussing that problem, maybe you should be talking to..." The key to making this conversational transition is to describe what you do, by not describing what you do.
Instead, focus on your customer's world. Discuss issues you believe your customers may be experiencing, but don't come across as certain that they are experiencing them or that you can resolve them. If they are indeed having those problems, they will probably be very open to exploring them further with you. This is a powerful way of turning a brief, opening monologue into a value-rich dialogue that leads to real business results. When your prospects believe that you understand their problem, they will likely believe you have a solution to it. At that point, you will have established relevance.
Consider that initial moment of contact. It must be carefully prepared, highly relevant, and thoroughly rehearsed. Here is an example of the format:
We work with companies that are facing escalating manufacturing costs and are looking at the possibilities of outsourcing. We help them analyze the risks and potential benefits of outsourcing and have the capabilities to provide the manufacturing services if their situation points to that as a best alternative.
This takes roughly 20 seconds to say, but it covers a lot of ground. Let's break the statements down:
- We work with companies that are facing escalating manufacturing costs and are looking at the possibilities of outsourcing—speaks to relevance and positioning. You describe who you are by the type of company you serve and a major symptom it might be experiencing. The customer now knows who you are and should be thinking "That's sounds like me."
- We help them analyze the risks and potential benefits of outsourcing...—we now introduce more specific relevance via the concern they would typically be struggling with. Notice the balance of analyzing the "risks and potential benefits."
- ...and have the capabilities to provide the manufacturing services if their situation points to that as a best alternative—more relevance. Here we state the value we can provide.
As you can see, this really isn't a pitch in the conventional sense. There is actually a dialogue taking place within this short monologue. You're speaking, but the customer is replying silently and agreeing in his mind that about experiencing the problems you are describing.
You are addressing, in sequence, the questions that are popping up in the customer's mind. Who is this person? What does he do? Is this about me? Is it an issue I'm experiencing?
When we establish relevance, we are providing customers with the information they need to answer these questions, and they invariably agree to continue the conversation.
Unfortunately, too few of us really take this matter very seriously, because we often get hung up in our standard way of doing business. It is typically handled in an ad hoc, uncoordinated way and in a format that we have rehearsed so often with so many contacts that it becomes even more embedded and more problematic. When you consider the complexities of an ever-evolving and highly competitive marketplace, how can one expect to get the attention of a valuable prospect if we don't change our approach and evolve with our customers and the complexities they daily face?
Considering how much is at stake with regard to initial impressions and their impact on perceived credibility, it is surprising how few enterprises actually address this issue in a thoughtful and disciplined fashion.
Many times, conversations like these are multiplied across the sales force. Constantly undermining one's credibility takes a major toll on market penetration and profitability for both the individual salespeople and the companies they represent. The focus on self is also often reflected in marketing materials, sales collateral, product training, Web sites, and, as I just described, those very valuable and often under-scrutinized first-call conversations. Opportunities simply never reveal themselves because our introductory positioning statements close them off.
Are your initial contacts with your prospective customers carefully considered and thoughtfully constructed? Is your company positioning itself with focus on the customer's world? After all, your first impression makes all the difference, and you only get that chance once.
There is much to gain—or lose—in the opening moments of a conversation. It is critical to take the disciplined steps necessary to build credibility in that initial contact, ensuring the conversation continues and deepens. Otherwise, your prospective customer will always be just that.