Many entrepreneurs face a common challenge as they launch and grow their companies--their first meetings with prospects. Even if day-to-day business meetings are old hat to you, you'll find that holding new business meetings with prospects and closing sales face-to-face require mastering a different set of strategies and skills.

Here are 10 steps to successful meetings to get you off to a great start.

1. Gather background information. A pre-qualifying telephone call will help you anticipate what your prospects' needs are. Learn as much about them as possible. As you prepare to meet with a business prospect, become familiar with basic information on his or her company. Then make a list of all the ways your product or service will benefit the company.

2. Set a realistic goal. Depending on your industry and where you're located, some experts estimate the average meeting with a prospect can cost up to several hundred dollars. So it's essential that every meeting moves your prospect incrementally closer to a buying decision. Before you leave your office, set a primary goal for your meeting. If you're a public relations consultant, for example, a realistic primary goal for a first meeting might be to set a date to present a comprehensive proposal. If you're a painting contractor, your primary goal might be to provide an estimate for your work and obtain a signature to begin.

3. Prepare quality materials. Create a family of high-quality printed tools that includes everything from business cards and stationery to printed estimate sheets, brochures and presentation tools.

Take a hard look at all the materials you'll use in a typical sales meeting. Are they well-written? Do all the colors, typefaces and creative elements work together to create a cohesive, professional image? Pay close attention to any materials you intend to leave with your prospect, especially if you're in a competitive bid situation. These materials must help close the sale long after your meeting is over.

4. Rehearse your presentation. It's a big mistake to bring materials to a new business meeting unless you've practiced how you'll use them. This is particularly true if you're making a new business presentation to a group. Rehearse your presentation using the visuals and handheld materials. If possible, videotape your rehearsal and examine it critically to be sure your tone is upbeat, your materials are effective and your pace is appropriate.

5. Build rapport using property observations. Imagine you're in the office of a business prospect. An autographed baseball is on his desk. A photograph on the wall shows a farmhouse surrounded by rolling fields, and a tape of the Beatles is playing softly in the background.

By noticing the baseball, the photograph and the music, you've made three property observations. You've also detected three opportunities to build commonality and rapport with your prospect. Talk about your mutual enjoyment of baseball or your childhood growing up on a farm, or refer to your favorite Beatles song. Any of these will help you break the ice and create a relationship based on understanding and trust.

Steps 6 - 10

6. Observe your prospect carefully. During the meeting, is your prospect sitting forward and nodding with interest, or is he or she sitting back with arms folded and head tilted to one side, indicating a lack of connection, boredom, disinterest or disbelief? Be aware of the physical cues your prospect is sending you and respond accordingly.

7. Ask qualifying questions. A new business meeting isn't a "pitch." It's a conversation--an opportunity to uncover your prospect's needs and to present solutions for meeting them. If you find yourself doing all the talking in new business meetings, you're probably talking yourself right out of business. It's just as important to ask good questions and listen carefully to the answers as it is to provide solid, helpful information. One of the most important and often overlooked questions to ask is, "Are you the person who will be making the final decision?"

8. Present case histories. Case histories are stories that demonstrate the ways you've successfully met the needs of your customers or clients. Prepare about half a dozen case histories demonstrating a wide range of capabilities, and be prepared to discuss them in your new business meetings. Case histories are great for positioning your company against competitors that offer similar services. Never directly criticize a competitor. Instead, present a case history (in other words, tell a story) that demonstrates the benefits your customers or clients have enjoyed by working with you.

9. Offer good solutions. In order to successfully close any business transaction, the prospect must be convinced you provide the solution to his or her challenge. It all comes down to how well they believe your product or service will meet their needs and their confidence in you to carry out your promises. To close, summarize your suggested solution and answer any final questions that may stand in the way of the prospect's decision.

10. Take action. You've gotten fully prepared, used property observations, asked great questions, listened carefully to the answers, presented case histories and offered solid solutions. Now it's time to ask for what you want. It's amazing how many entrepreneurs take a meeting successfully to this point and then simply stop and walk away without closing for their primary goal.

If you're having difficulty closing, it may be because you haven't provided sufficient reasons for your prospect to buy. In that case, go back to step seven and ask why. If you've followed the advice in steps one through nine, your prospect will be eager to get moving and may even help you close. Don't be surprised if he or she asks, "When can we get started?"