Monday, May 5, 2008

Establish rapport, then talk business

I’ve stressed in my recent posts about the necessity during business development meetings to put the focus virtually entirely upon the prospect. Why have I made such a big deal about this? Because optimal clients (for your specific practice) are relatively rare and when an opportunity arises to catch one it can’t be wasted. I have seen several examples of firms losing these opportunities to their competition.

Anticipating a tough fight, my client brought me in to help. We did our due diligence and developed a meeting plan. Then, when the chips were down the client veered away from the plan and shot themselves in the foot. Hopefully, reading last week’s horror story etched the fallacy of this in your mind.

OK, enough said about that. Let’s assume we’ve begun the meeting and you’re focusing all your attention on the prospect. What do you actually say? What questions should you ask?

I hope I can convince you of the value to first make some personal comments and get a feel for the prospect. “I read on your web site that you were previously in the plastics business. Was that here in Gotham City?” “That’s quite a collection of trophies. Are you the champion water skier?” “I’m pretty sure we have a mutual friend. Don’t you periodically play golf with Jim Becker? Yes, he’s a member in our Harley Owner’s Group.”

These questions accomplish two purposes. The first is that you reveal your human side and thereby appear friendly and affable. (Face it – there are prejudices out there. Many people think accountants are reclusive, introverted number crunchers, lawyers aggressive jerks, etc. These reputations are wholly undeserved, of course! Well, maybe those other guys fit the cliché, but certainly you and I don’t.) People strongly desire to do business with people they like, or at least feel comfortable being with. The second is to let the prospect know you are interested in them beyond just getting the engagement. By expressing a desire to know more about them personally, you flatter them, make them feel important and give them an opportunity to talk about themselves.

Sometimes the prospect may not want to extend this “get-to-know-each-other” phase beyond a few minutes. They may be anxious, pressed for time, or just want to get right down to business. You’ll have to honor this, of course, but always try to begin with an effort to establish a comfortable foundation for the relationship. I can tell you with certainty that your odds of obtaining the engagement are greatly enhanced if you can establish a personal connection with the prospect. Naturally, that includes the owner(s), but also key members of the team. Psychologists call it rapport. Study after study has shown buyers do not purchase personal services until they feel comfortable on a gut level, so address this right away. If you only have a few minutes, do the best you can. The only rule is that it will be to your benefit to ensure it happens.

Establishing rapport is so important that if, for example, my client discovers at the last minute they may be severely pressed for time to make their case, I will immediately advise them to try and reset the meeting or try to get the prospect to break the meeting into two components, with the agreement they’ll hit the first part today and the second at a follow up meeting.

If that happens, devote the first half to establishing rapport, asking questions and gathering data. Nothing else. Don’t propose solutions, explore objections, discuss pricing or try to get any kind of a commitment. Then, when you see them the second time you can knock their socks off because you’ve had at least a day to prepare.

Next time I want to talk about meeting dynamics, body language, eye contact and seating/positioning. These are important because if you do them incorrectly, it can literally impair how clearly the prospect hears your message. Thereafter, we’ll rejoin the meeting at completion of the introductory phase and pick things back up where you begin exploring the prospect’s financial and tax issues. In that posting, we’ll talk about some things you can do to stack the deck in your favor and thereby gain a meaningful edge on your competition.

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