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Establishing Rapport With Prospects

There's a time to talk, and there's a time to listen. Don't expect to get the sale if you haven't a clue when to do each.

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Early on in my sales career, I was given a precious gift from a CEO, one that made a profound and positive impact on my selling style and my career as a whole. He hung up on me.

Let me explain. I had 10 prospecting calls to make that day, and until I punched that fateful call onto the keypad, I had talked to three assistants, left five messages with receptionists and dialed one impossible-to-rectify wrong number. As I punched in the last number of the day, I thought to myself, "What a disappointment this day has been." That was mistake number one-though I certainly didn't know it at the time.

I slouched in my chair and listened to the phone ring. On the second ring, someone picked up and barked out the words, "Charlie Leland."

I had actually gotten a CEO on the line! I choked up completely. My mouth suddenly became cotton-dry. I almost lost my grip on the telephone handset. I stammered out the words, "This is Tony Parinello with Hewlett-Packard." There was a little pause that I was apparently supposed to fill, so I asked what seemed to me a perfectly reasonable question: "Do you have a minute?"

Charlie shot back instantly, "What do you want?" "Well," I explained, "Hewlett-Packard has a new computer system that's called the 21MX. It's the fastest on the market, with a whopping 64KB of memory. It's configured with our high-capacity disc drive system and double-track magnetic back-up. I'd like to ask you a few questions about your company. Would tomorrow at 9 o'clock be good, or would Wednesday at 2 o'clock be better?"

What a snappy way to get the appointment! (Or so I thought.)

Charlie's response put me in my place. It was short and sweet. "I don't have time for this," Charlie said. Then his phone said, "Click."

For a moment, I was too stunned to speak. This really was a lousy day, after all. I scanned my surroundings to see whether anyone had heard the deathly silence that had followed my request for Charlie's time. Fortunately, no one had.

As I drove home in my company car and pondered my brief conversation with Charlie, I found myself repeating a quiet mantra to myself, a mantra that served as the starting-point for a remarkably deep two-month slump in my career at Hewlett-Packard that took me well into the first quarter of the next year. The mantra ran as follows: "I am a klutz.I am a klutz.I am a klutz."

I thought about that call for weeks. Eventually, I concluded that there was an important lesson to be learned from my short discussion with Charlie. When I'd asked him, "Do you have a minute?" I'd become one of a hundred supplicants begging for a chunk of his day without offering anything meaningful in return. When I'd launched into a discussion of my product's features, I'd proved for certain that I was yet another person interested in wasting his time. When I'd tried to force him into an "either-or" choice for meeting me in person, I'd shown only my ineptitude and my lack of sensitivity to the demands on his time and the importance of his position.

In short, I had failed to establish the right business rapport with Charlie. By focusing in a self-centered way on what I knew and the unreasonable goal of setting the first appointment, I had made that first appointment impossible!

Once I figured out what had gone wrong, I never made the same mistake again. I never would have course-corrected, though, if I hadn't had spent two awful months pondering that horrific hang-up.

Know When to Talk and When to Listen

In order to build business rapport, you'll need to master the skill of judgment. That means knowing when to talk, listen and comment on what's being said and understood. In other words, you'll need to know how to deliver an effective and meaningful monologue, when to stop talking and how to make the transition to dialogue.

This is not as difficult as it may at first appear. Ask yourself: What does it take for you to listen to what's being said? Does what the other person says have to be of interest to you? Does it have to be from a credible source? Does it need to pose an interesting and challenging question or thought? Does it have to stir your imagination? Does it have to elicit a response and give you the chance to express your opinion or immediate reaction?

If you're like most people, you answered yes to all these questions. But in a business setting, you may put these conditions on hold when interacting with a colleague or superior. Guess what? CEOs operate by these principles at virtually all times! How do I know? Take a look at the criteria they gave me when I asked them what it takes for them to keep listening to someone else. The salesman must:

  • Prove that what's being said has a high probability of interest to this target CEO. (Remember what CEOs fear most: wasting precious time and being forced into discussing unfamiliar topics.).
  • Prove their credibility. Cite specific, verifiable results; quote real, live human beings who will back up what you say.
  • Pose an interesting and challenging question or thought. (CEOs are more open than you might think to challenge. When someone asks, "What would happen if you doubled your commission on sales that concluded in half the normal selling time?," they stop and ponder the consequences!)
  • Stir the imagination. During my interviews with CEOs for my new book CEOs Who Sell, Peter Bell, CEO of Storage Networks, used the following question to inspire interest-and, eventually, commitment-from the CEO of a Fortune 30 company: "Imagine cutting $1 billion from your fixed expenses between now and the end of the year." Wow! Who's not going to listen to the next words that come out of this guy's mouth?
  • Elicit a response that gives the CEO the chance to express an immediate opinion or reaction. Remember, CEOs are big on exercising power, control and authority. Let them. Needless to say, a question like, "Which time is better, Monday at 2 o'clock or Wednesday at 4 o'clock?" fails this test.)

And when all else fails, ask for advice and opinions. Individuals who possess power, control and authority like CEOs love to give their opinions. Doing so gives them the feeling that they are in control of the conversation.

Years ago, I was making a prospecting call and heard this response from a CEO: "I've had a bad experience with your organization, and I would not take the risk of a business relationship with your organization again." My response is one that you may want to tuck away under the category of severe "objection handling." I said: "Mr. Benefito, if your best salesperson just heard that objection from one of his best potential prospects, how would you personally coach them in answering it?" and then I shut up and listened intently. What I heard turned out to be the key to turning the situation around...and taking a giant step toward winning the sale (which is ultimately what happened).

Anthony Parinello is the author of the bestselling book Selling to VITO, the Very Important Top Officer. For additional information on his speeches, Sales Success Kits and newest book, CEOs who Sell, call (800) 777-VITO or visit

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