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The ABCs of Always Be Closing

August 18th, 2015

Closing isn’t just for the final stage of the sales process. ABC

 

Early in my career, I landed a meeting with the CEO of a prospect company. When I arrived for the meeting, the CEO’s assistant told me that the CEO had been called out of the office, and that if she wanted to reschedule, she’d contact me. I had committed to the meeting, but I hadn’t closed the CEO’s commitment. It was a tough and valuable lesson.

ABC – Always Be Closing, the sales mantra of Alec Baldwin’s hardball character in the film “Glengarry Glen Ross,” doesn’t have to be aggressive. Always Be Closing is a mutually beneficial way to confirm buyer commitment. No matter where you are in the sales and buying process, continually and respectfully confirming your prospect’s commitment is smart and proactive. Here are two examples.

Setting Your First Meeting

A first meeting should be focused on learning about your prospect’s business needs and issues, and determining if there’s a fit with your products or services. Be candid with your prospect and yourself. Make sure that your prospect is willing to invest the time needed for a productive meeting. Confirm your prospect’s commitment through questions such as:

  • Is there anything before or after that hour that affects your availability?
  • Is this date soft-circled for our meeting, or is it a confirmed date?

If your prospect waivers on a date and time, ask: Is he genuinely interested in resolving his business needs and issues? A “no” at this point may be disappointing, but it saves your time and effort for qualified prospects.

The Signal that You’ve Missed Something

The definition of a successful meeting with a prospect is a clear next step. Many salespeople focus on describing their own next steps, such as, “I’ll send you those specs” or “I’ll call you next week.” Focus instead on confirming your prospect’s commitment by asking:

  • What do you see as the next step?
  • Is there anything we’ve discussed that can prevent you from moving forward?

Never leave a meeting with “I’ll think about it” as your prospect’s next step. It’s a sign that you missed something. Follow up with questions that address the gap:

  • I honestly thought I clarified your questions and concerns, and I’m wondering: what exactly didn’t we cover? What information do you need? What questions do you still have?

Give your prospect time to respond, even if that means a long silence. You’ll uncover information that will help you to determine the next steps – or if the next steps are worth taking.

The sooner you intentionally apply ABC throughout the sales and buying process, the more time you’ll spend with people who have a true interest in your product or service.

 

Reinventing TGIF: Top Business Development Activities for Summer Fridays

July 9th, 2015

There are nine Fridays between the Fourth of July and Labor Day. How much new business will you generate with yours?

The idea of working on Fridays in the summer seems counterproductive. It can be easy to talk yourself into not working or leaving early: everyone’s on vacation; no one’s serious about business on Fridays.

Here’s the surprise: research indicates that taking Fridays off during the summer can be counter-productive. In a survey conducted by Captivate Network, fifty-three percent of those surveyed said that reduced hours on Friday lowered their productivity and increased their stress. Leaving early on Friday and dreading Monday all weekend is the ultimate waste of time.

Summer Fridays are the time to work smarter, not harder. Take advantage of the relaxed vibe and the slower pace with these tips.

Schedule Friday Morning Meetings

Busy executives wind down on Fridays and their calendars are often more open than other days of the week, especially during the summer. Meeting at a breakfast or coffee spot that is convenient to your prospect’s office can provide a brief change of venue without taking up much time. This approach can be especially effective as a follow-up conversation to an initial meeting. Nine Fridays? That’s nine opportunities to move nine potential buyers closer to a close.

Do Lunch, Get an Introduction

Summer Fridays are an ideal time to schedule lunch with former colleagues or business associates. Always confirm that you’ll meet at their offices, and ask in advance if they’d be willing to introduce you to their boss or other executive at the company that you’d like to meet. When you meet your new contact, be sure keep the conversation brief and informal. Remember, it’s not a sales call; it’s an introduction. By the end of the summer, you’ll be back in touch with nine colleagues and you’ll have nine new business contacts.

Send “Three by Three” Emails

Fridays are also a good time to refine and test your email messages to prospects. Pare yours down to three sentences, then test sending a few by 3:00 p.m. on Friday to three types of prospects:

  • New prospects you haven’t met
  • New contacts you have recently met
  • Contacts you know but have not approached as prospects

The typical business executive receives over 600 emails a week. This inflow slows down as the work week closes, and your email may get more attention on a Friday afternoon than on a Tuesday morning. 

Clear Your Desk and Your Head

When I worked for a global consulting firm, we had an unwritten rule: don’t leave the office on Friday until your desk is clean and your week ahead is planned. It seemed restrictive at the time, but it’s a practice that pays big benefits: it frees up your head space for weekend pursuits. Nothing boosts productivity like coming back to a clean desk and a game plan on Monday morning.

If you work smart on Fridays in the summer, you won’t be alone. But you will be ahead of the competition.

Three Ways to Practice Listening as a Business Skill

June 25th, 2015

Watching with your ears pays off in improved business relationships

When I lived in Latin America, frequent trips to government offices to keep my visa status updated meant a lot of bus travel. I learned to close my eyes as soon as I got into my seat. By being “asleep” I could avoid any unwanted attention I might cause by looking around. It also developed my listening skills. Watching with my ears taught me to observe my surroundings and still focus on information about my stop or connection.

This came in handy during an especially crowded second-class bus trip during Easter week. My seatmate was a woman traveling to market with a live chicken in her lap. I can still hear that chicken’s off-beat clucking as Olivia Newton-John’s “Let’s Get Physical” played through scratchy speakers. Despite all those layers of distraction, I still managed to hear the driver announce my stop.

About forty-five percent of a typical business day is spent listening, so watching with your ears is not only a smart travel strategy. It’s also a valuable skill for business owners and salespeople. Here are three ways to practice watching with your ears to maximize the value of every business interaction.

Asking and Listening: A former colleague of mine kept a roll of duct tape on his desk. It was his reminder to ask questions, shut his mouth and listen. Listening starts with asking open-ended questions that begin with what, how, who or where. In a business negotiation, examples of open-ended questions might be: 

  • How would you describe your current (workflow/maintenance/customer service) process?
  • What types of issues have surfaced in your current process?
  • What impact have those issues had on your (customers/employees/partners)?

The key is to ask, and then listen without interrupting. Practicing this skill with a friend or colleague can help you to notice and modify your interruption tendencies.

Listening through Layers: Listening through layers is a technique that can help you to uncover underlying issues or motivations. Try listening through three primary layers: listen for facts first, then thoughts and beliefs, and then for feelings. Often you’ll discover that you or others have made assumptions at one or more of these layers. Listening through them helps to clarify what’s important to each person and help to identify the next steps you can take together. 

Taking Action after Listening: Listening is half of the process. Identifying the next steps to a common goal is the other half.  Asking additional, open-ended questions can be useful in reaching workable future steps, such as:

  • What would you think if…?
  • How does _______ sound?
  • What are the options?
  • Who can help with that?

It’s not always easy to step back from telling or interrupting. Perfecting your listening skills takes a little practice, but it’s worth the payoff in avoiding in tense negotiations and improving the quality of your business relationships.

Living Your Personal Brand

April 22nd, 2015

Sometimes, setting an example for yourself sets one for others.

I recently accepted an invitation to speak at a business school forum. I typically don’t charge a fee for speaking at student events, but since I would be booking a flight, I asked if travel costs were covered. I was assured that they were, and I purchased a ticket. Then, a week before the event, an administrator apologetically informed me that that there would be no travel reimbursement. Somehow, despite several conversations and email summaries of the arrangements, the students had misunderstood the budget.

On the plus side, this was the first and hopefully only time I have ever encountered this situation. I have to admit that my first reaction was disbelief. Did this business school really expect me to fly 1,500 miles on my own dime to speak for free?

As I moved from indignation to introspection, two questions kept crossing my mind:

  • How can I turn my response into a positive learning moment for everyone involved, including myself?
  • How could I use this situation as an opportunity to live my personal brand?

I’d gotten a good deal on the flight. With a little effort, I could arrange business meetings before and after the event. I could catch up with a longtime friend over dinner that evening. I could also choose to be insulted, turn down the invitation and end my interactions on a polite but unpleasant note. What kind of message would I be sending about my personal brand if I did that?

The next day, I sent a brief email message to the students and the administrator:

The mixed messages were unfortunate and I appreciate your apology. I honor my commitments, and I will honor this one. I look forward to seeing you next week.

During the forum, the administrator apologized again and reimbursed my flight. I had a conversation with another speaker that led to new business for me. Most important, my decision to speak despite the miscommunications allowed me to make a quiet and potentially powerful statement about my personal brand, and perhaps set an example for the future business leaders who attended the forum.

This situation reminded me that, regardless of external circumstances, we always have choices. We can allow our choices to be determined by the decisions and behaviors of others. Or we can make our own, intentional choices, based on what we stand for and what we intrinsically know is the right thing to do. The learning moment for me? It’s easy to find a substitute speaker. But there is no substitute for the integrity of living your personal brand.

Networking for Meaningful Business Relationships: Three Questions to Avoid

March 3rd, 2015

It happens all the time at networking events: someone asks a question that is awkward to answer.

At one such event, I was standing in a semicircle getting acquainted with three other attendees. After I introduced myself, a person in the semicircle asked me,

“What are the two biggest issues you face in your business?”

Three sets of eyes fixed their gaze on me, waiting for my answer.

Every networking situation has a context, and if you’ve ever engaged in small talk with business people you are meeting for the first time, the questions you ask and answer depend on the context. For example, the kind of exchange you might have with someone you’ll probably never see again while waiting for your flight at an airport terminal is very different from the exchange you might have at a business networking event.

How do you establish a meaningful connection in a business context, often in five minutes or less? First, be aware of three types of questions to avoid.

Personal or Private Questions// “What are the two biggest issues you face in your business?” is a relevant question for a salesperson to ask a prospect, but only after establishing a connection and developing a relationship of trust. The question is out of context in a first, informal meeting with someone you’ve never met before. People like to connect with people who bring out the best in themselves and in others. “How did you get started in the industry?” is a context-appropriate option that fosters a connection.

Yes/No Questions// Networking questions build rapport by building momentum into a conversation. Asking yes/no questions is like trying to play tennis in a padded room – it absorbs all the forward movement your exchange. If you’re asking questions that begin with do/does or is/are, reframe them as what, where or how questions.

Why Questions// In a first meeting, your goal is to find common ground. Why questions can seem judgmental, or imply that there’s a right or wrong answer. Don’t risk putting a new contact on the defensive. Like yes/no questions, why questions can often be reframed as what, where or how questions. For example, “Did you like the speaker? Why?” could be reframed as, “What are your thoughts about the program?”

In addition to being intentional with your questions, be intentional with your answers. When you’re faced with an out-of-context question, answer it with a context-appropriate question. My answer to the question about the two biggest issues I face in my business:

“That’s an interesting question. What I love about my business is helping clients find new revenue streams. I’m curious – what do you enjoy most about your work?”

You have only a few minutes to establish a connection. Make that time meaningful by matching your networking questions to the context.

Are You Defying Gravity? Newton’s Law for Salespeople

November 4th, 2014

“Gravity. It Isn’t Just a Good Idea. It’s the Law.”

Gerry Mooney coined this tagline in 1977 and immortalized it on his cult-classic poster of an apple bouncing off Sir Isaac Newton’s head.

The law of gravity applies to sales just as much as it does to apples falling from a tree. Like gravity, an effective sales approach is a force of attraction – it draws prospects to your product or service. Unless you defy the law. Here’s an example from a mail piece I received recently.

The letter was from a financial advisor I don’t know. Inside the envelope was an informational piece about asset allocation in a financial portfolio. The advisor’s photo and contact information were printed on the piece, and next to his photo the advisor had written: “Congratulations on your award. I thought this article might interest you. I will follow up next week.”

This advisor deserves credit for proactively seeking out prospects, but his approach failed. In sales, as in physics, you can’t defy gravity: it’s the law. Here are three simple adjustments to turn a gravity-defying attempt at prospecting into a force of attraction.

Have a Clear Purpose: A handwritten note of congratulations is a considerate touch and an effective opener. The advisor’s note just didn’t have any connection to the asset allocation piece, and the piece had no connection to me. The communication lost its force of attraction. A simple card or separate note of congratulations would have been more effective as an initial approach.

Be Helpful: The advisor doesn’t know me or anything about my interests. What made him think the asset allocation piece would interest me? Do your homework and find out about the prospect and his/her company, and don’t push too much information too soon. A relationship-building approach might be, “As you explore financial options as a business owner, I’d be happy to be an information resource for you.”

Communicate a Meaningful Follow-up Plan: The advisor’s note said, “I will follow up next week.” Follow up on what? Open the door to getting acquainted with a local prospect by requesting a time to introduce yourself informally and in person. If your prospect is involved in a local chamber of commerce, professional association or civic group, suggest meeting and introducing yourself to your prospect at an upcoming meeting. It’s a low-key way to establish a connection.

Gravity always pulls; it never pushes. If your sales approach is pushy, you’re defying gravity. Use the law to your advantage, then watch the impact it has on your sales.

Risk the Simple Question

July 31st, 2014

What every company should ask customers – and themselves.

Ask a friend what makes you different from another friend, and he or she can probably tell you in insightful detail.

Ask a business colleague what makes one co-worker distinct from another and you’ll probably get an equally complete comparison.

Now think about one of your company’s competitors. What would happen if you asked a customer or prospect what makes your company different from your competitor? What answer would you get?

Most business owners only risk this question, if at all, with people and companies with whom they have a positive relationship. Yet the greatest benefit often comes from asking the customers and prospects who have the most difficulty answering the question. The people to whom you have revealed little of yourself and your company are the ones who don’t know you and can’t answer.

Everyone and every company stands for something, whether they have consciously decided to make what they stand for important, or whether they stand for something by default.

Asking your customers and prospects what makes you different from your competitors involves more than the risk of hearing what you may not want to acknowledge. It also involves asking yourself first, with clarity and candor, what you and your company stand for. The answers to these questions unlock the potential to create business relationships based on knowing, liking and trusting.

Yes, asking involves risk. But if risk-taking didn’t involve some risk, as rock vocalist Tim McMahon observed, “It would be called sure thing-taking.”

What do you stand for? Are you willing to risk the simple question?

Easy on the “I’s”

July 21st, 2014

How to create a relevant sales conversation

Recently I attended a corporate sales meeting. On the surface, the salespeople seemed to be having good conversations, punctuated with jokes and loud laughter. But their subtexts revealed more. They often interrupted each other in mid-sentence. Some people seemed not to be listening at all, scanning the room for other people. Others impatiently watched for a pause in the conversation to take back the floor. Most of what everyone had to say started with the word “I”. 

That meeting made me think about my first business trip to Japan.

I was in Tokyo to negotiate the terms of a strategic alliance, travelling with a Japanese-American liaison and translator. For our first night in Tokyo we stayed in the home of his cousin. A single woman in her forties, Takayo was a realtor in Tokyo who spoke some English and had studied French. My Japanese was limited to polite phrases that were useful for small talk but not so useful for a true conversation: comments about the weather; yes I liked Japanese food. Takayo and I managed to a mix of deconstructed English with some French thrown in and a little Japanese here and there, spiced with unintentional humor. 

After dinner I thought about our conversation and realized that she rarely used the word “I” in speaking to me. It was as if she had held up a mirror to our conversation. Instead of admiring herself in the mirror, she reflected back everything she said in terms of its relevance to me and what I had said. 

We were using the same words but we weren’t really speaking the same language. I was speaking “I to You” and she was speaking “You to You.” 

“You to You” communication is part of Japanese culture and it taught me an important lesson early in my sales career: relevance is a business relationship essential, regardless of the culture.

In business dialogues – whether they are with partners, prospective customers or social media audiences that influence perceptions of our brands – responding is much more than making your point. It’s listening first and then expressing your views in a way that reflects and incorporates the viewpoints of those on the receiving end. That’s “You to You.” And that’s as relevant a business skill in Texas or the digital world as it is in Tokyo.

 

Slow, The New Fast

June 10th, 2014

What happened to that white-hot prospect?

Every business owner and sales person has asked this question. You had their attention and mobile number. They had a need; your product or service practically sold itself. You had rapport, and then –

Silence. 

You replay the conversations in your mind and retrace your steps from your notes. Did you miss something?

Perhaps. But maybe it’s not what you think you missed.

Maybe what your prospect took was a break. Some time away from a business pace and information intake that is increasingly head-spinning and demands an increasingly rapid response.  

A business owner I know unplugs once a month, reserving a day to think through all of his pending business decisions and related information. Many executives can’t or don’t schedule intentional “think time,” and they temporarily escape by postponing decisions. Your prospect’s balancing-act response to an overload of information, decision-making and the need for speed? Slow, the new fast. 

Before the next hot prospect turns into a whiff of smoke, consider your prospect’s capacity for information, rapid change and rapid response. Integrate the following questions into your interactions with them:

  • What are you getting from me that is most helpful?
  • What am I doing that is not helpful to you?
  • What could I be doing to be more helpful?  How does that help?

Information overload affects all business professionals and their activities, including you and  your prospects. Think through your sales cycle and build in time for your prospect to gain perspective on their future use of your product or service. It’s one of the routes to yes in slow, the new fast.

Good Advice I Never Followed

April 28th, 2014

Good or bad, you own the outcomes of the service you provide

Early in my career a boss told me, “Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness.” Good advice I never followed.

Many people do follow that advice, like the presenter of a webinar I attended that became the webinar that wasn’t. Shortly after his introduction, the presenter’s comments were out of sync with his slides. He didn’t seem to realize that there was a problem. I sent a polite comment through the chat function but the problem persisted. A few minutes later, the slides stopped advancing entirely, and for the remainder of the webinar I sat eyeball to eyeball with a photo of Bill Gates staring back at me.

The webinar support technician eventually told the presenter that no one could see the slides he was referencing. So the presenter tried describing the unseen slides – an unsatisfying process for everyone. Finally, he gave up and moved to Q&A, only to be informed that all of the questions submitted by attendees had been lost.

I felt for the presenter. Like every business professional, I’ve been in situations where the best of plans for service delivery don’t unfold as intended. For a few days after the webinar, I expected to receive a follow-up email from the presenter acknowledging the issues, or at least an apologetic reference on his blog. Like the webinar, that didn’t happen.

Two weeks later, I received a broadcast email announcing the same webinar. I didn’t click through to register, and not because of the glitches in the first webinar. The presenter lost my participation because he didn’t own his outcomes.

Technology, logistics, information or preparation – regardless of the source of success or disruption, we own the outcomes of the service we provide. Ignoring the outcomes doesn’t change that. Disruption can be an opportunity to demonstrate your integrity and willingness to see the situation from the customer’s point of view.  All it takes is a simple apology and a good-faith effort to make it right. That’s not a sign of weakness; it’s good business.

Stuff happens, and everyone makes mistakes. The webinar that wasn’t is a vivid reminder of how your customers feel when you don’t deliver and don’t own it. A sincere apology may not be the most innovative customer service effort, but it’s often one of the most effective.