It's a familiar situation: You have a sweet target prospect you'd love to land, but you can't seem to make any headway. You don't know how to start a relationship. What can you do to create a beachhead or get your foot in the door?
This frustrating issue was raised at my last peer advisory board meeting. (I facilitate peer advisory boards, where these kinds of challenges often come up.) One of our members shared an intriguing strategy that works very well for her--and I like it so much, I'm sharing it with you.
Her company's strategy is simple: Ask the potential account for permission to work on their hardest problem. Ask for the issue that no other vendor has been able to solve.
Think it's a high-risk approach or waste of company time and assets? Some of the other board members did, too. What if you can't solve the problem? You've wasted your resources and you look like a failure.
That's the "glass half empty" point of view. Look at it from the other side: If you can resolve the issue, you'll be the hero. The prospect will think "Wow, if he or she can handle such a hard, messy job, imagine what they'll do with the other ones."
The Glass Half Full
Ask yourself what's the worst that can happen if you fail. Even if you can't find the solution, you still get the opportunity to create the relationship you want. You open the door to communicating with your coveted prospect. It's up to you to use it to your advantage.
In other words, once you get the assignment, provide your prospect with regular updates--what you're learning, what you're doing and what you plan to do next. By sharing the results--good and bad--you show the prospect how you think and work.
You also get to engage in joint problem solving with the prospect. Show them you're giving the task your best shot and working toward a mutual benefit. By doing so, you not only build a relationship, but a sense of obligation that can only improve your chances of winning the account.
To that end, create a procedure or schedule for updating the prospect, ensuring ongoing contact. Communication and follow-through are the rules of the road--the building blocks of a future relationship.
It's All About "Sampling"
What you're doing is allowing the prospect to "sample" your services. Sampling is an effective marketing tool. With it, you allow the prospect to sample your skills, expertise and work habits. You're also providing a sample of what a future working relationship would look like.
Some entrepreneurs look upon sampling as a marketing investment, provided in lieu of advertising, brochures, trade shows and other tactics.
Be careful, however, of falling into the trap of free consulting. We're all tempted to demonstrate how smart we are and how good our organization is, but it's not smart to work for nothing.
How do you get around this? Obtain some type of commitment: If you solve their problem, what's in it for you? Yes, some prospects may fudge the answer, but put the issue on the table and get at least a verbal acknowledgment. Make sure they're offering something besides gratitude. Tough issues may call for expensive solutions; it's realistic to anticipate an above-average return on your investment.
Here are some questions you can use to qualify prospects, once you've confirmed they have a "mission impossible" problem:
- How important is finding a solution to you? (Is it a burning issue, or idle curiosity?)
- Would you like me to put my efforts into finding a solution? And if I were to identify one, what would be the procedure to get the business arising from it?
- Would you then put the work out to bid, or award it to me at a budgeted amount?
- What do you consider a realistic budget for implementing such a solution?
- What's your anticipated timeframe for implementation?
- And of course, protect yourself by making sure you're on the same page: What's your definition of a true "solution?"
In my experience, there are very few truly impossible problems and very few impossible prospects. Let others be held back by "glass half empty" thinking. If you want it badly enough, make it possible.
Ray Silverstein is the president of PRO: President's Resource Organization , a network of peer advisory boards for small business owners. He is author of two books: The Best Secrets of Great Small Businesses and the new Small Business Survival Guide: How to Survive (and Thrive) in Tough Times . He can be reached at 1-800-818-0150 or email@example.com .