Sunday, June 8, 2008

Starting The Meeting The Right Way

Before we plunge into identifying the winning strategies to structure your conversation with the prospect, I want to take a moment to look at a piece of data that has an overarching impact on your probabilities of obtaining the engagement.

An extensive empirical study of sales behaviors undertaken in the ‘80s revealed that the highest percentage of successful outcomes occurred when the participants related and interacted in an even, consistent manner during the meeting from beginning to end. To explain: the salesperson actively took steps to put the prospect at ease, smoothly transitioned from introductory conversation to business, ensured the subsequent discussion revolved around those things the prospect cared about, then connected the benefits of their product or service to those needs/wants the prospect considered important, and in the end presented a value proposition that was easy for the prospect to accept. Throughout the process all parties behaved relatively similarly (mirroring and matching again!) and exhibited outward signs of being comfortable together.

In contrast, the meetings where participants exhibited visually different styles, discussions repeatedly veered into irrelevancies, the salesperson talked too much (especially about themselves), or where the salesperson was ineffective in discovering the prospect’s motivations, simply weren’t – by a big margin - as successful. At the end, the participants never really connected and didn’t form a relationship centered upon what the prospect cared about.

The topics discussed in these blogs are presented as individual elements of this whole; each a part of a panel in a larger quilt that, when one steps back and views the entire pattern, is a fully integrated design.

We’ve previously looked at a number of topics that will positively influence the meeting, so let’s actually get to it. Introductions have been made, preliminary niceties completed, coffee has been offered, everyone is seated, and now somebody has to start talking. How do you open a meeting? In other words, what can you say that creates the desired framework for the upcoming discussion?

I recommend that you begin with something like this: “Al, we’ve had the opportunity to examine the financial data you sent over last week, and are prepared to discuss it in considerable detail, but it will be helpful if we have a better understanding of the big picture so the numbers can be discussed in context. Could you please give me/us an overview of where you are with the business and a general picture of the direction you wish to take it?”

The reason you ask a question like this is because most reasonably experienced accountants can competently discuss the numbers. That includes most of your competitors. And, remember from a prior post, the prospect goes into the meeting believing you know how to properly prepare their taxes, etc. While you might obtain the engagement by eloquently discussing the mechanics of how you propose to handle their accounting and what it will cost them, it is a very risky roll of the dice. The problem is that this strategy makes your presentation just another “me-too.” What have you said that makes them want to select you?

Instead, you are seeking an advantage; a differentiator that separates you from the pack, one that connects you with the prospect and makes you the obvious choice. You do this by learning what their motivations, wants and needs are. Their accounting issues are secondary – you have the knowledge to talk about those practically extemporaneously (and if there was anything in your preparation to suggest a subject you needed to know more about, e.g. qualifying for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, then you’ve read up on that subject(s). By asking about “overview,” “general picture” and “direction you wish to take it?” you are prompting the prospect to reveal something of them self. This is crucial because it empowers you to propose solutions that transcend the mechanical tasks of tax calculation and compliance.

But, what if you haven’t received any preliminary financial data? What if you are coming into the meeting more or less cold? Today, that just shouldn’t happen. Do your homework. Information is everywhere. The internet, local news articles, talk with people you know who know them, drive by and look at the place, talk to their customers/clients, public records, D&B, etc. Impress them with your resourcefulness.

You simply MUST avoid saying, in effect, “I really don’t know anything about you or your business. Please tell me about you and your company.” Ouch! What can this possibly say about you that is positive? You’ve made it very easy for a competitor who has done a bit of research to look like the winner.

Next week we’ll look at how you can effectively deal with the “cold” meeting situation.

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