Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Best Way To Meet With A Prospect

A prospect can be defined as any person who represents the opportunity for additive billable hours. This can include both present clients as well as non-clients.

If you are contemplating meeting with a prospect who is not a present client you have to decide where (and perhaps how) you will get together.

Rachel, who practices in New York, told me how she liked to set up a formal time to talk with prospects on the phone. Asked why she didn’t instead meet face-to-face, she replied that getting around was simply too difficult and took too much time out of her day.

Her strategy was to schedule the discussion in the morning, during mid-week so the Monday and Friday pressures weren’t present, and get a commitment that the prospect could talk for at least a half hour (and hopefully longer). She would send over in advance an agenda plus whatever documents she desired to refer to during the discussion. The package would also include a transmittal letter, brochure, testimonials and her business card.

So, how did Rachel’s system work? She may have saved a lot of time, but the results she obtained were poor; estimated to be about a 10% conversion rate.

As last week’s posting discusses, to convert a prospect they need to a) like or at least have a good “gut” feeling about you, b) believe you are competent and, c) become convinced that you understand their issues and can provide the needed solutions.

Since so much of interpersonal communication, both in terms of understanding and clarity, comes from non-verbal cues, Rachel was at a severe disadvantage with her telephone-only approach. She simply couldn’t establish the desired comfort level most prospects were looking for, especially if another accountant was competing for the business who did arrange to meet the prospect in person. She has now switched to face-to-face meetings and her conversion rate is greatly improved.

So that’s the first rule: meet with your prospect in person. OK, but where? There are several choices that can include your office, their office (or everyday environment), or a neutral site.

Generally speaking, the best choice is their office. I don’t have hard numbers, but anecdotally the vast majority of feedback I’ve received over the years strongly reinforces this conclusion. There are many reasons, e.g. it is their turf and they will be more comfortable, they are in an environment where they are used to making decisions, you are respecting their time demands by going to see them, you can see their operation and how they construct their surroundings, there will be real time access to necessary data (“Tom, where are we on the depreciation timetable for the crane?”), and more.

How about a neutral site? Typically, this will be a restaurant, but it could be many other settings, e.g. you decide to meet for a round of golf and talk. My distrust of these alternatives primarily stems from their potential for unanticipated distraction and/or disruption.

For example, if you go to a restaurant you may be placed next to a very loud birthday party, or it may be a table that is located too close to other diners. Or, the table is simply too small. In the golf example, your prospect may be quite competitive and even if they “win” the match, perhaps they will be furious they played very poorly that day. Talking business is the last thing on their mind. Also, depending upon the setting, you may discover it is daunting if not impossible to work with files, forms, notepads and other tools of the trade.

What if the prospect is an existing client and you wish to acquire additive work from them? The rules are similar, but not exactly the same. Again, the first choice is to personally visit them in their environment. A strong additional reason for this is retention … they’re already a client and every survey ever conducted among clients reinforces the value they place upon the personal attention you give them. And, just like when you are speaking with a new prospect, you will have a superior level of communication and that’s always good.

Because there is a strong pre-existing level of trust you generally don’t have to rely upon the same level of “proof” to make your case. For example, if you know your client is contemplating growing their business, your suggestion that she engage you to run some what-if scenarios that explore her expansion funding options will probably be “sold” on the basis of your descriptive narrative, not by carefully prepared examples of the sort of data you are talking about.

Therefore, you often have greater flexibility in how you choose to meet. A restaurant, happy hour after work, golf or even a noon time jog might do it.

That’s rule number two: meet the prospect at their office or everyday setting, especially if they are someone you don’t know. With a present client you have greater flexibility, but if you are unsure, you can’t go wrong by defaulting back to structuring the meeting as though you are meeting them for the first time.

It is all about the odds. You want the highest conversion rate possible for the limited time you have available for business development. Make the meeting in person and in their environment, embrace the methods we’ve looked at in many prior blog posts and you will make the most of your opportunities.

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