Editor’s Note: As part of our ongoing series diving into the world of sales, part three explores the power if preparation and how to craft your connections. If you missed it, check out the previous installment in this series, The “S” Word – Part 3: Know the Narrative, or start from the beginning and catch up with part 1, The “S” Word – Part 1: Who’s afraid of the big bad “S”?.
In this week’s post I want to advocate the power of preparation.
Sales training often feels like it’s based around a set of formulas. It’s what my friend and marketing specialist Audrey Lartey calls “punching in the same numbers” for a result. In an episode of the Story Conversations podcast we talk about how folks in sales are superstitious. How they like to believe that once they find the “winning” code that’s the route they should always follow. We agreed, sales conversations are seldom that simple.
Don’t leave things to chance
We should plan for selling opportunities whenever they may arise. From initial contacts to formal pitches, each connection needs careful crafting to achieve the best outcome.
Planning doesn’t mean we should be formulaic. This isn’t about using tools, like a specific phrase or mirroring body language – techniques professional sales people would use for certain situations. This is about being mindful of a potential sales relationship. Craft a connection that leaves room for a conversation to go where it needs to. Listen with curiosity and build on your plan to get results.
Making the first approach can often be awkward. This is the one area of sales where a team of professionals is often utilized. Cold-calling specialists for example. But there are times when those of us who don’t have sales in our job title have to make that initial move. It might be with a contact at a conference, like IIEX, where you’ve identified a potential lead you want to grow. Or maybe you’re trying to get an internal marketing team to drive a campaign based on data and analytics. You want to persuade them to use your team.
Step one in your preparation is to consider the reasons that underpins the initial conversation. Why should this person give you their attention and time? This tracks back to part three of our series and knowing your audience. As this is first contact, the conversation should be about something that allows you to find common ground. What genuine reason do you have to connect to this person – other than to get them to buy what you’re selling?
Start by asking yourself some exploratory questions. For example:
Where do your lives or roles intersect?
Do you have a contact in common?
Can that person make an introduction?
Do you have an item in common – reading the same book, wearing the same color, etc?
Did they attend a meeting you were at?
At these first contacts it’s too early to be selling. You’re laying the ground work. You’re listening. You’re exploring. The most you can do at this point is offer an opening, and make them aware that you and your idea (or product/service) exists. It could be as simple as ending your conversation with, “I’d love to get your thoughts about a research project I’m working on.”
Keep things simple. Remember you’re only in the first stages of rapport.
Build small-talk stories
Asking questions is great, but you also want to be able to respond when the conversations evolve. Once connections become warm opportunities we must remind ourselves not to jump ahead of our potential customer. Let them lead, and be willing to move at their pace.
“I prepare a few go-to small-talk stories that I can pull out when the conversation runs dry.”
In my workshops on using stories for sales and marketing, we explore how to use small-talk to create stronger connection. Some people find this task incredibly easy. Funnily enough, I’m not one of those people. So I empathize with individuals who are far more comfortable getting into the weeds of a giant data set or the detailed methodology used to arrive at a set if research results.
To help me, I prepare a few go-to small-talk stories that I can pull out when the conversation runs dry. These are simple anecdotes about life or work events. They’re safe to share and hopefully interesting enough to spark curiosity. It will often center around a simple subject. For example, if I was talking to a fellow attendee at a conference, I might share my experience of the first time I came to the conference. I’d build it around a simple story structure of: challenge, struggle, resolution. Something like:
“My first IIEX I was on my own. I didn’t know anyone. I spent the whole morning like an awkward teenager at their parent’s friend’s 40th birthday party. I almost left at the first coffee break. But, fortunately in the second session I was sat next to a fascinating woman who had travelled up from Texas. She immediately took me under her wing and introduced me to people. The rest of the day was honestly such fun!”
Small-talk. Nothing special. Just an anecdote that reveals a basic truth about us. A little vulnerability goes a long way to building trust.
In the next post we’ll expand on this idea of using human stories to create sales connections, by looking at how to incorporate them into formal pitches and presentations.
Stories aren’t just for casual anecdotes, they’re a powerful selling tool. To explore more I’d recommend reading Daniel Pink’s To Sell Is Human. Pink uses stories to bring the book to life, and explains how they are used by the best salespeople. His book not only makes selling feel like something anyone can do, but like something you’ll want to do. Combining his research with the work of other experts, he argues that selling is a very human activity.
Remember, sales is problem solving – as we discussed in part one of this series. So, our plans for each contact, no matter how casual, need focus. We need to craft our connections.