Master The Meeting

Make the most of meetings
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the January 2000 issue of . Subscribe »

In the classic '80s movie Wall Street, Charlie Sheen's character, Bud, pins his hopes on winning the account of shady Wall Street mogul Gordon Gekko, chillingly played by Michael Douglas. In an early scene, Bud has spent the whole day sitting in Gekko's outer office on the chance his prospect will take a few moments to meet with him. When the two finally do meet, Bud quickly learns he's way out of his league, though ultimately he's able to impress Gekko with his persistence (and his inside information). From that one meeting, a relationship is born that changes Bud's life forever.

Sometimes, your entire future can rest on the results of a single meeting. People hire people, not companies, and they hire people they like. Meetings are your most important relationship-building tool. For most entrepreneurs, successful meetings are essential to growth and long-term success. You may meet with prospects regularly to sell your product or service, or you may have meetings only at critical times, such as when you're seeking investors. Either way, successful meetings require polishing specific strategies and skills. Here are five ways you can get better results from all your prospect meetings:

Pre-qualify your prospects

Often, when new business meetings go sour, your selling skills aren't to blame. You may just be meeting the wrong prospects. Do you carefully pre-qualify all prospects by phone before agreeing to meet with them? If not, it can cost you time and money. The cost of an average sales call ranges from just over $100 to several hundred, depending on your industry and location. If your meetings continually fall flat due to poorly qualified prospects, you're wasting valuable time you could be spending doing billable work or meeting with the right people.

To qualify prospects, you have to know what you're looking for. What characteristics make someone an ideal prospect for you? Make a list of the questions you need to ask to assess whether a prospect fits what you're looking for. Then refer to that list when making your initial phone calls.

Let's say you're marketing public relations services to hospitals and your focus is on special events and publicity. Suppose you're contacting the community relations director at a large institution to suggest a meeting to discuss how you can help create a program of health-related events and activities to raise awareness for the hospital and position it as a caring leader in the community. Your list of qualifying questions might want to reveal:

  • the number and type of events the hospital stages each year;
  • the content and status of any community relations program currently in place; and
  • whether the hospital is using one of your competitors to plan and execute its current program.

A qualified prospect needs what you have to offer, can afford it and is willing to pay for it. During the qualifying process, if you find out a prospect is using your competitor, it means he or she fits all three criteria--and it's full speed ahead.

Use property observations to build rapport

Once inside your prospect's home or office, you'll have access to important clues about him or her. Just look around and make property observations. What kind of objects does the person collect? What can you learn from the photographs on the desk or walls? Is there music playing? Anything from a ski trophy to the artwork on the wall can be a conversation starter and a means for building a bridge that will foster good rapport.

Imagine you're meeting a prospect in his office. You notice three photographs on his desk picturing him with his Labrador retriever accepting trophies at dog shows. There are prints of Ansel Adams' photographs of the Grand Canyon on the wall, and classic rock is playing in the background. You've just made three types of helpful property observations. Now it's up to you to pick one so you can illustrate something you both have in common. Suppose you have a dachshund, not a Lab, but you share a love of dogs, or you've recently gone to the Grand Canyon. You get the idea. By using property observations this way, you'll begin the relationship with something in common that you both enjoy.

Ask good questions

How can you tell if a meeting is going well? It's probably on the right course if your prospect's doing most of the talking. Some new entrepreneurs believe a sales meeting calls for them to razzle-dazzle the prospect, throwing out a lot of information as quickly as possible. On the contrary, unless you're making a presentation, a prospect meeting requires you to ask good questions, listen thoughtfully to the answers, and respond with benefit-oriented information that shows prospects how your business can help them achieve their goals.

Ask a combination of closed-ended questions (to uncover facts) and open-ended questions (to reveal the emotion behind the answers). Share case histories that demonstrate how you've solved similar problems for other customers. There's rarely a cookie-cutter solution to any sales challenge. Every prospect has different needs. You must uncover those needs and the rationale behind your prospect's objections to successfully close the sale.

Observe body language

You don't have to be a psychologist to pick up on nonverbal clues. Suppose you're meeting with the manager of a retail store you hope will carry your handcrafted soaps. Your prospect keeps shifting in her chair, glancing down at the counter and making notes on an inventory list. It's clear she's not focusing on your conversation, so you'll need to draw her out. On the other hand, if she's leaning forward, making eye contact with you, she's interested in what you have to say. The key to using body language as a guide is to tune in to the physical signals your prospect is sending. They're easy to spot if you watch for them.

Invest in great tools

No matter how good you and your products or services sound, low-quality sales tools can torpedo an otherwise successful meeting. That's because prospects want to make safe choices. So create materials that stand up to--or even surpass--those of your competitors. Otherwise, you won't be able to create a powerful image.

Before your next prospect meeting, brush up on these five steps. You'll have more successful meetings--and more sales for your new business.

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