Selling is an art form consisting of a few simple actions that must be performed consistently and flawlessly. At the same time selling is a linear discipline, which means activities happen one at a time and, generally speaking, some activities need to happen before others.
This article will discuss one area of selling that, if mastered, will dramatically improve your team’s ability to get in front of prospects as well as stay in front of them throughout the sales process.
As you read through this article, remember that success in sales requires an acknowledgement that time is your most precious commodity.
Getting the First Meeting
It does not matter how eloquent, persuasive, good looking or charismatic you are if you never get the chance to position yourself in front of a prospect – in-person or over the phone. The intent of prospecting is simply to determine if there is a relationship worth pursuing. In most environments, upward of 75% of the total selling effort required is consumed getting the first appointment.
Because of this disproportionate expenditure of energy, we place a premium on securing a scheduled interaction with the prospect. In other words, a scheduled meeting represents tangible evidence of a prospect’s investment of their time. Additionally, a scheduled event changes the context of the interaction from an interruption to something that is expected and that can be appropriately prepared for – regardless of whether you are seeking a 45-minute in-person presentation or a 10-minute phone introduction.
Over the course of a year, salespeople make lots and lots of prospecting calls. The vast majority of these can be considered cold calls in that the prospect is not expecting the call, nor have they requested the solicitation. However, cold calls are an integral part of the demand creation sales process.
My approach to cold calling represents a major departure from typical sales organizations in that the primary intent is simply to make an introduction and gain agreement to schedule a time to formally pitch the prospect. This is of utmost importance because it is difficult to present your value proposition when the prospect’s environment is unknown to you and you are contacting them in the middle of doing something else. Stated simply, you can’t sell into an interruption.
At this point, most salespeople raise a logical objection: ‘Surely a prospect would not agree to an initial meeting without knowing what you are selling and why they would want it?’ My response is often challenging for sales professionals to embrace: ‘Prospects must be sold on the mutual benefit of deferring a sales conversation (your pitch) to a specific and limited time window where you are both prepared for and expecting the interaction.’
As simple as this sounds, I have found this approach represents a dynamic and philosophical shift. As such, I will discuss the specific elements necessary for effective appointment setting:
Appointment Setting Tip #1: Aim High.
As long as I have been in sales, managers have implored sales professionals to position at the highest levels of a company (C-Level, C-Club, Executive Level, etc). Still, I am amazed at the lengths salespeople will go to justify why they are calling three levels below any real decision making authority. The concept of building a consensus at the functional layer of an organization and then getting these contacts to ‘introduce’ you to the upper echelon is simply a myth.
Appointment Setting Tip #2: And Wide
Don’t fixate on the finding the ‘right’ person. Chances are, your target company has a single ‘decision maker’ for staples and glue. For almost everything else, buying decisions are comprised of several individuals playing a variety of roles so eliminate the phrase ‘decision maker’ from your vernacular. Regardless of whether or not this concept makes intuitive sense, if you acknowledge the challenge of getting ‘in’ with a company, it makes sense to keep your efforts broad during the prospecting and qualifying phase. In many instances, the fastest path to the ‘right person’ may be through side doors and relationships with individuals that are not in direct decision-making roles.
Appointment Setting Tip #3: Acknowledge it’s going to take more effort and more time than you think.
No matter how interesting or eloquent your voice mail message, it is highly unlikely anyone will call you back. Of course this is not 100% true, but it is the right mindset for approaching the overall process. If you start out with the belief that no one will ever call you back then you will be pleasantly surprised when they do. The rest of the time, you must put in the real work necessary to get the job done. It takes an average of 8 to 12 attempts across 3 to 5 potential buyers to secure a single opportunity to pitch for a meeting. Practically speaking, it can take as little as 24 calls, voice mails, redirects, etc, or as many as 60. You must be patient, professional and persistent.
Appointment Setting Tip #4: Always ask for the prospect’s time.
Salespeople argue about this one, but a failure to ask for the prospect’s time goes against the entire philosophy of ‘never selling into an interruption.’ There is no excuse for not asking: ‘Have I caught you at a bad time?’ or ‘Can I take a quick minute to introduce myself?’ Most often, salespeople are afraid this gives the prospect the opportunity to say no. That said, it is unlikely bullying past someone will set you up for long-term success. Moreover, a response indicating the prospect is busy represents an ideal and straightforward opportunity to schedule a brief call next week.
Appointment Setting Tip #5: Ensure you are focused on the right objective for your call.
As I’ve mentioned, the objective of prospecting calls should not be to sell. Still, sales professionals are typically so versed on product features and benefits they can’t resist selling. To avoid this tendency, remember the prospect is not expecting your call and probably regrets picking up the phone as soon as you say: “Hello, my name is…” Your objective must be to get them to agree to commit some of their time in the future to speak with you. If your primary objective is to get the prospect to agree to schedule some time, it doesn’t make much sense to spend time blathering on about your company and yourself. Don’t be shy about getting to the point. ‘I am calling to arrange time on our mutual calendars so I can introduce you to myself and my company,’ is not a bad starting point.
Appointment Setting Tip #6: Make it easy for them to say yes.
As stated previously, you should be directly and unashamedly requesting a brief – scheduled – phone introduction. Don’t request an in-person meeting as this is seen as a significant commitment of time (it takes 15 minutes just walking you in and out of the building). The goal of the initial call is simply to shift the context for delivering your initial ‘pitch’ from an interruption to a planned event. A ten-minute call is not long but more time than you normally get for this activity. To increase your chances of success, suggest a specific day and time option. This is a time-tested tactic so I recommend something like: ‘I have time on my calendar next Tuesday at 10am…does that work for you?’ Suggesting a specific time indicates you are not simply sitting around with time on your hands and typically shortcuts the process.
Appointment Setting Tip #7 Ensure your message is about the meeting.
Salespeople are challenged by the directive to avoid talking about what they are selling. This is compounded by a natural reluctance of the prospect to commit their time to something they are not entirely sure about. However, your goal is to convince them that scheduling time to meet is a better framework for you to pitch them and (conversely) for them to react to what you are pitching. Ironically, the greater challenge turns out to be avoiding the urge to pitch them on the spot once this technique triggers the natural curiosity mechanism in the prospect.
Appointment Setting Tip #8: Be prepared for objections.
Salespeople are often surprised by how receptive prospects are to this approach. Still, no technique will eliminate objections nor would avoiding objections be desirable. An objection is a logical response to an unsolicited request. Stated simply, objections represent the prospect’s part of the conversation. Objections are supposed to happen, and only the prospect can overcome their own objection. Our job is simply to assist them in this process, so you should be prepared to address them in a straightforward manner. The key to handling objections is being prepared for a predictable set of logical reactions. Successful sales professionals spend time thinking through how they will handle common variations including: ‘I have 15 minutes right now, why don’t you tell me what you do?’ or ‘Just try me on Thursday,’ and of course: ‘Send me some information.’
Appointment Setting Tip #9: Reschedules are a part of the process.
On average, 25% of meetings scheduled this way are ‘no-shows.’ Generally speaking, 50% of these ‘no-shows’ can be rescheduled. This is simply part of the process so don’t get discouraged. Remember, you are not scheduling a qualified sales call but simply changing the context of your initial pitch. Be prepared to professionally handle no-shows and focus on getting the prospect to re-commit their time.
In most environments, cold calling may yield one appointment for every 30-40 live-interactions. Implementing this approach to appointment setting produces dramatic results. Shifting the context of a cold-call away from pitching your product can result in setting initial appointments more than 20% of the time.
I hope the techniques described provide a structured framework for sales organizations and sales professionals to improve their capabilities. It is important to remember we started with an acknowledgement that Selling is an art form consisting of a few simple actions that must be performed consistently and flawlessly. As such, sales can be mastered by anyone with the discipline and determination to take actions that always require effort and sometimes appear counter-intuitive.
Getting the first meeting represents an area where a consistent approach will ensure you invest your time on those prospects and opportunities that have the highest probability of delivering the desired result.
By Townsend Wardlaw
photo credit: ani! on Flickr