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.

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image of Jeff Thull

Jeff Thull is president and CEO of Prime Resource Group ( and the author of Exceptional Selling: How the Best Connect and Win in High Stakes Sales (September 2006), The Prime Solution: Close the Value Gap, Increase Margins, and Win the Complex Sale (Dearborn Trade Publishing, 2005) and Mastering the Complex Sale (2003).