At some point in your life, you’ve had one. I’ve had one. Everyone’s had one.
I’m talking, of course, about a really awkward, torturous, embarrassing first date.
You misread a cue and leaned forward for a kiss when your date was just reaching forward to grab their laptop bag.
You find yourself with nothing to say for a full ninety minutes, and sit in agonizing silence as you get increasingly desperate looking for a way out.
The agony of a bad date for most people is matched only by the agony of a really bad sales call. Thankfully, I’ve got a few methods that will help you avoid both.
Just like customer relationships, selling and dating have some striking similarities:
- If you really, really need a sale (or a date) the likelihood of you getting some action drops significantly
- If you have the thought “I have to make this one work,” in the first interaction, you will crash and burn
- Self-confident individuals who enjoy the process have the best outcomes
Early on in my consulting business, I had the good fortune to work with Skip Miller, experienced sales trainer and author of ProActive Selling.
Skip helped me to get over my own fear of selling by teaching me the natural steps in the sales process that totally match the needs of your prospective customer.
Step One: Initiate
This is the very first time that you meet a prospect. It could be an in-person meeting or an online one. Maybe you ran into this person at a networking event, maybe you’re looking at their website, but this is the first impression each of you is making on the other. During that time, there is only one important question you need to answer:
Is there a reason to keep talking?
If you and your prospect have a lot in common or complementary interests and needs, it’s likely one or both of you is interested in taking things to the next level. Calmly and confidently invite them to meet with you formally — kind of like a first date.
In a professional sales situation, this goes something like this:
It was great meeting you, Tom. From what you described about your event, I may have some more ideas for marketing and promotion. Do you want to chat more about it next week? When would be a good time?
Online, you can initiate that same meeting by inviting them to “Call me to learn more” or “Send us an email to set up a free consult.”
If there’s no chemistry, there is no need to play out an awkward sales version of a dating dance, where you politely agree to first, second and third meetings even when you both know that you don’t have much to offer one another. Tell this prospect that you don’t think you’re a good fit for the project, and wish them luck finding the right person.
And if you happen to know someone who might be a better choice, go ahead and set them up with a simple referral. “The project isn’t a good fit for me, but my friend Suzanne might be excellent for you — would you like her number/website?”
In dating and in sales, there’s no point in wasting time when you aren’t right for each other. After all, there are plenty of fish in the sea. In fact, the goal of an effective sales process is to get rid of bad fits as quickly as you can, so that you can continue to fill your sales funnel with more qualified prospects.
Step Two: Educate
While you’re actually on that first date (a phone meeting, consult over coffee, lengthy email exchange), you’re in the Educate stage. This is when you’re going to:
- Learn as much as possible about your prospect’s situation
- Find out if he has the money and time to work with you
- Determine if you could deliver value to him with your solution
While you’re finding all of this out, be on the lookout for any information they’re asking for that is above and beyond “first date” material.
For example, if you were on your first date with a nice person who abruptly asked whether you’d like to have kids, that might be a bit of a red flag. After all, you haven’t even determined yet whether you’re enough of a match to consider kids.
Similarly, if someone asks you for a price quote or proposal before you’ve had the time to get a full background on their situation, it should raise some alarm bells. First you need to learn a little more about one another so you can find out if more serious planning is in the offing. That’s what the Educate stage is for.
Good questions to ask while you’re “dating” a prospect:
- What do they want to do?
- Why do they want to do it?
- When does it need to get done?
- What will change for the better in their life or business if they work with you?
- What does success look like in their view?
And in turn, they’ll want to find out from you:
- Can you really deliver on your promise?
- Do you have the capability and resources to solve their problem?
- What have you done for others before?
- Are you trustworthy?
- How do you work?
- What do you charge?
In the online businessworld, you’ll be communicating this information to each other in all kinds of ways, including:
- A phone call/email
- A detailed “intake” form on your website where you ask specific questions to potential clients
- Research on websites, Twitter, LinkedIn profiles, and/or Facebook pages to see what they are about and who they connect with (note that this works for both sides)
- Well-organized case studies, samples, or testimonials on your website
- Google searches
- Talking with your past clients or customers (and remember, for better or worse, Twitter makes it easy to find past clients who’ve worked with you)
At the end of the Educate stage, you should have a pretty clear idea whether the two of you are a good fit for one another. If you sense they feel the same way, you can confidently invite them to the next step of the sales process, Validate.
Otherwise, you can make the same graceful retreat we talked about in the Initiate section — say you don’t think you’re a good fit, and possibly recommend them to someone who might be a better match.
Step 3: Validate
At this point, the relationship is beginning to take shape. Now it’s time to make sure you’re both on the same page.
Though you’ve gathered lots of information during the Educate stage, you’ll to clearly lay out exactly what you expect from the relationship and what they’re expecting from you.
It’s time to decide if you can make a commitment. So lay out in an easy-to-understand format like a project proposal:
- The scope of the work
- The specific value and benefit of the work (return on investment, saved time, reduced risk, better brand, etc)
- Roles and responsibilities (what they’ll give you, what you’ll give them)
- A specific time frame for the project
In dating, this step often shows up some holes in the relationship — you want to see him twice a week, he wants to see you every day. Arguments ensue.
To avoid arguments in your professional relationships at the Validate stage, put everything in writing and make sure you’re clear before moving forward.
If some disagreement comes up during this point in the proceedings, don’t make the mistake of compromising too much. If the price is not working for your client but you are not willing to lower it, that’s a dealbreaker. Time to nicely end the relationship and point the prospect toward another potential match who might be willing to meet their terms.
Step 4: Justify
Now that you both know you’re serious about this business relationship, it’s time to make a proposal.
There are a number of ways to ask for the sale, but you need to be the one to ask. If you’re waiting around for the prospect to ask you if they can give you money, you’ll be waiting a long time.
Here are a few ways to ask for that sale:
- Send a formal proposal
- Include a payment link in an email
- Send them to a page on your website where they can purchase what you are offering
- Describe the offer with the full benefits and value proposition in a sales letter
- Direct them to a very clear “Purchase” button
Step 5: Decide
The purpose of the last step in the sales process is to ask for a decision, Yes or No.
Although it seems like a small detail, it actually causes a lot of stress for people new to sales. (And maybe for you.)
The problem is, if you don’t ask for a decision, your prospect floats out to what Skip Miller calls “Maybe Land” — they have your proposal, you think they want to work with you, they know exactly what they need to do to make a purchasing decision … but they’re not getting back to you.
In relationships, this is a little bit like someone saying they need “space.”
You sit and stare at your phone, refresh your email twenty-two times a minute, and slowly go from strong, confident ninja to insecure, miserable failure.
Take control. If you didn’t get a firm yes or no, nicely let them know that you’ll need to move on if they can’t make up their mind.
Tom, I sent you a proposal for our project. In order to meet your deadline for April 15, we need to make a decision if this is a go by February 21. If we decide later than that, I am not sure I can fit you into my production schedule.
So what happens if February 21 comes and goes and you don’t have a decision?
Move on. Consider that this project is in Maybe Land, and it may never get out.
You may want to chill out and wait to see if they get back to you in a day or two. Or you could go back to the Educate stage and make sure that you have clearly communicated the scope and value of your offer.
Whatever you do, do not call or email them every day. You are worth more than that! Get out there and meet someone new — someone who can hold up their half of the relationship.
Desperation was never good for dating, and it is worse for selling.
Happy Valentine’s week!
About the Author: Pamela Slim is the author of Escape from Cubicle Nation: From Corporate Prisoner to Thriving Entrepreneur. She has blogged at Escape From Cubicle Nation for the past six years. You can find more practical sales tidbits in her new program, Ethical Selling that Works.