Sales Training, or How to Have a Conversation

We hire lots of enthusiastic, smart young people, but sometimes they’re not born with the instinct of how to run a meeting or move a deal forward. So we end up with some convulsive, awkward client meetings where it’s not clear who is driving or what road we’re on. The way my company used to do it, we’d send newbies off to week-long intensive trainings that paralyzed them about how to actually talk to anyone, and in my mind did as much damage as they did good. Now that I’m all about the KISS (keep it simple, stupid), here’s my prescription for the smart but undertrained. Read these couple of simple steps, breathe deep, relax, and have a conversation.

  • Start your calls by introducing everyone on the phone, and explaining their role or letting them explain it. Be brief, but don’t skip this step unless the parties all already know each other.
  • Establish connections and rapport. Near the beginning of the call is also the customary time for folks to play the “do you know so and so” game. Anything from “We enjoyed working with your predecessor on a great program two years ago” to “I heard you were previously at Cisco; did you have a chance to work with my friend Jane?” Don’t overdo it, but pause to let him happen if it’s going to.
  • Summarize the agenda. “So, we thought since Acme Company markets to the same audience we’re trying to reach with our event, we should find a way to work together. There have been several ideas thrown out and I thought I’d get everyone on the phone for a few minutes and see if we could agree on a general direction to pursue.” Now pause. This is everyone else’s chance to chime in if they had other agenda items. Sometimes it’s worth asking, “Did anyone have other ideas of what we want to achieve on this call?”
  • Recap discussions so far. Don’t get into great detail, but set the stage. Check for agreement to see if others have anything to clarify or add. “Does that sound right to you, John?” or “Am I forgetting anything?”
  • Ask your client to talk about what he/she would like to get out of working with you. This is either very general, like “Can you tell me a little about your top goals for this year given that you have a new product coming out Q2?” or more specific, as in “I see that you have participated in events in this space before; has your goal been audience development or advertiser relations, or something else?” If you already have a pretty good idea, start by summarizing that and then checking for clarification. If you don’t know what they want but would like to lead them in a particular direction, suggest and then ask if it’s a fit. Either way, your goal here is to get the client to talk. Very important: actually listen to what they say. Repeat back to let them correct you or add a new spin to their answer once they hear it played back to them. Listen, play back, repeat.
  • During the call, tune into your colleagues’ signals about when to keep exploring, and when to start driving towards closure.
  • Hopefully at some point the client gives you an opening that he is buying what you’re selling. Test close some ideas and see what feedback you get. Adjust if necessary. Explain any benefits that might not be immediately obvious. Sell it in the framework of what the client said he/she needed. Listen again.
  • When appropriate, attempt a summary of what you’ve collectively decided and articulate the next steps. Check for agreement. Listen some more.
  • Summarize and thank everyone for their time.

Remember, it’s a conversation. Your first goal is to understand the person on the other end of the line. Your second goal is to find the places where his/her goals overlap with yours. Don’t put the horse before the cart.

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