Questions to ask at a first sales call

sales meeting

I’m a believer in always getting to meetings early. But on Tuesday ,due to my calendar dyslexia, I managed to show up at 10:30 a.m. for a noon mentor meeting!

But the staff at The Venture Mentoring Service were unfazed and gave me a conference room to work in. But to compound my mixed up morning I also managed to forget my iPad and I’m too fat fingered to write more than a text or short email on my iPhone, wasting valuable time wrestling with Apple’s autocorrect and losing.

So I got out my trusty pen and paper, both already booted and waiting for my words of wisdom.

I’ve had a few mentor sessions recently where the founders were at the stage of talking with prospective customers for the first time and so I gave them my two classic closing questions:

  1. What questions should I have asked of you that I didn’t?
  2. Who else in your company or elsewhere would you suggest I talk with and could you please give me an introduction?

There are a number of other questions that should precede these two closers, so here’s what I managed to jot down off the top of my head, the only part that’s working these days. Once you’ve gotten introductions out of the way and heard your customer’s objectives for the meeting you can move into the closing phase of the meeting:

  1. Have you ever tried to solve this problem we’ve been talking about before?
    1. When?
    2. How?
    3. Did you use internal staff or an outside firm?
    4. If an outside firm, what criteria did you use in selecting them?
    5. If internal resources, what department(s) in the company were involved?
    6. If the solution failed, do you know why?
  2. What products or services similar to ours are you using or have you tried?
  3. Do you have the authority to purchase our product? If not who does?
  4. Who else is involved in purchasing technology products in your company?
  5. Would you be willing to run a pilot test with us? If so, let’s plan on working out how we’ll judge the pilot’s success and what the next steps would then be.
  6. If we do run a pilot with us will you be the technical (or business) contact? If not can we meet with the firm’s technical or business contact?

It’s very important to have business and technical contacts on both sides of the table. Don’t leave without knowing those contacts.

Of course, there are many other questions you might ask. Just be sure to find out ahead of the meeting how much time you will have and who will be attending (name and role in the company – titles don’t always tell you the latter).

One exercise I recommend is to sit down with your team and have one of you take on the role of the prospect. That person’s job is to come up with every possible objection to your product or service. The other members of the team’s job is to come to address those objections. Then turn this role playing exercise into a document your sales team can use to prepare for sales meetings. It’s always powerful to anticipate a customer’s objections rather than waiting for the customer to voice them.

As part of the sales call you will most likely be asked to compare your product to competitors. Avoid those terrible check box comparison grids – they will either bore your customer or stimulate them into focusing on your competitor’s product not yours. Rather you should focus on why your product is a superb solution, giving very concrete examples, not abstract or highly technical reasons. Best of all is to tell stories about how your product either displaced a competitor’s or was chosen instead. Success stories are the best stories. You want to keep the customer focused on your value proposition, what makes your product both different and better. And rather than get into technical details, foresee the typical concerns of corporate IT:

  1. How easy is it to integrate your product with the their legacy products? Can your product read and write the necessary file formats?
  2. How much training does your product require? (best answer is “none”)
  3. What installation problems have you run into? (“None” is not a good answer. Tell a story or two about how you have overcome installation problems. Much more creditable than saying no one has ever had a problem.)
  4. Can I talk with other customers who have been using your product?
  5. Tell me about how you will keep our data private and our application secure?

Keep in mind all these questions are based on on one goal: to get the next meeting with both the business and financial decision makers. Or if necessary, the next meeting with the firm’s technical team. Don’t quit when you’ve gotten agreement to a next meeting. Make sure you set the agenda, the goals and attendees in addition to date, time, and place.

A typical corporate sale might involve three meetings: the initial call by the sales person, (in person or via a video conference), a follow-on meeting with decision makers and/or IT staff and a closing meeting where you may want to bring in your CEO and/or founder to help you close. (With many calls and/or emails to coordinate schedules and answer questions.) When a small company is selling to a big company the major question for them is “will you be around to support this product?” Meeting the CEO and hearing about your investors can help address that issue.

There are pros and cons to sending your sales presentation ahead of time. On the pro side your customer might just review it before the meeting, saving precious meeting time. But don’t count on it. People don’t read is one of my maxims. On the cons side you lose the ability to change the presentation before the meeting. Well you can of course change it, but you don’t want to confuse your prospect by having two different versions of the same presentation. What I recommend is you email your 30-second pitch to your contact. That way he or she can easily forward that very short and engaging (!) email to any colleagues who will attend that meeting. Your chances of having them read a short exec sum are far higher than having them review your presentation in advance – but don’t count on it. Start all meetings from square zero whether or not you’ve sent a document in advance. That refreshes everyone’s memory and gets the entire customer team on the same playing field.

So what are you waiting for? Get your customer call list together and start booking appointments!


Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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