It’s easy to get lost in the sea of opinions on how best to open a sales call. And it’s no surprise so much attention is given to this important part of the process. Too much focus on what steps to take when attempts to reduce sales calls to a series of mechanical steps and obscures the more artful considerations that set apart successful sales calls.
So, let’s first establish three steps that sellers should be prepared to take during the opening phase of a sales call. Then let's consider some of the questions and answers those steps stimulate.
Here are three things the seller should do during the “opening” phase of a sales call:
Step 1 Introduce yourself, position your company, and establish rapport.
Step 2 State the purpose of the call in terms of value to the buyer.
Step 3 Take control of the call by getting the buyer’s approval for you to ask questions.
These steps sound self-explanatory and on some level they are. If you all you took away were those three steps, you'd be on your way to a good sales call: you'd be planning your call and you'd be using good, solid steps to organize the call. But your sales call will be much better if you consider some of the questions and implications suggested by those simple steps.
Should all three steps appear in every sales call?
In general, yes, but there is obviously need for flexibility when opening sales calls. In a first call on a new prospect, the steps outlined above should probably be followed very closely. Step 1 is especially important in a first call. Indeed, in big ticket sales with long selling cycles, Step 1 may be all you hope to accomplish in a first call. On the other hand, in calling on established clients, Step 1 might be handled with a greeting as simple as “Hi, Jack. It's good to see you.”
Step 2 is always important with existing clients as well as with new ones, whether the call will be devoted primarily to establishing need, presenting a solution, addressing client concerns, or discussing the next step. Always state the purpose of the call in terms of its value to the buyer, not to you. This value statement gives the buyer a reason to take part in the call and helps you “earn the right” to take up the buyer’s time. Keep it short and general. Say something like “I’m here today to learn more about your situation, so I can then make suggestions on how we can be of help to you.”
Step 3 should be included in every call in which you want to discover new information. It is especially important early in a calling relationship, but it is also useful and perfectly appropriate when calling on someone with whom you are quite friendly. It is a graceful way to get the call underway with you “in the driver's seat.” Your request can be as simple as “Jean, to get started, I’d like to ask you some questions about your operation.”
Why is it necessary to ask permission to ask a question?
Apart from the fact that it sounds good, asking permission to ask questions has three important benefits for the seller.
First, it emboldens you—it gives you a license—to ask probing GAP and Consequence questions.
Second, it makes your client less likely to resist if your questions seem a bit intrusive. Because the client just gave you permission to do what you are doing, you will be able to probe beyond purely “public” information and into the realm of “private” and “hidden” information. And that, of course, is what you want to do in order to find and develop needs.
Finally, it puts you “in charge” of the sales call, because the person asking the questions gets to determine not only topics, but the direction and the depth of the conversation. When you have gathered the information you need, instead of asking another question, you can gracefully steer the call into its next phase.
What can I do to establish rapport without being too personal or appearing phony? And how much is enough?
The best answer is to do whatever is natural to you, appropriate for the situation, and welcomed by the client.
Thanks a lot! Let’s assume I know what’s natural for me and appropriate for the situation. How can I possibly tell what will be welcomed by the client or prospect?
That’s a bit harder. Naturally, for a new acquaintance, safer topics and briefer remarks are recommended. As your professional and, perhaps, personal relationship develops, you will come to know what type and what amount of rapport building will be enough. When dealing with a rather businesslike buyer or one who is having a harried day, the best way for you to establish rapport may be to eliminate all social pleasantries beyond a bare bones introduction and get right down to business. In other cases, you can tell by the buyer’s friendly, relaxed manner and words that several minutes of personal relationship building may be in order. (Some of the sellers we work with operate in a very long sales cycle, lasting anywhere from 6 to 24 months. In these cases, it may take a number of calls over a period of months to adequately build rapport and establish the credibility of the seller and the seller's organization. Such calls usually involve a small amount of social rapport building and a large amount of professional rapport and credibility building.)
Some people advocate “reading” the buyer’s office and furnishings for clues as to personality type, family situation, recreational interests, etc., and then using this information to help build rapport early in the sales call. This is a good idea, but be careful. There's a story about a manager who kept a swordfish mounted on his office wall. A colleague once remarked, “Joe, I didn't realize you were such an avid fisherman,” to which Joe responded, “I’m not. Never been fishing in my life. I just keep the fish there so I can tell right away which sellers want to waste my time talking about vacations and fishing and which ones want to talk about how their services can be of help to me.” Remember: Do only as much socializing as is welcomed by the buyer.
Okay, let’s assume that I know how to introduce myself and how to establish rapport. What does it mean to “position” my company?
In the context here, it means finding the best words to briefly describe your company so as to “position” you vis-à-vis the competition, or in terms of the services you offer, or the benefits your services provide. This helps you earn the right to take up the buyer's time and to ask the buyer questions. When positioning your company in the “opening” phase of a call, you want to be very brief. The positioning words might simply be, “As you may know, we have branches and affiliates around the world and we deal with many multinational corporations. We are now able to offer middle market companies like yours a range of sophisticated foreign exchange services that previously were available only to larger companies.”
There may be times when you want to devote the entire call or a major portion of it to "positioning". In that case, you don't need a positioning statement in the opening. Simply introduce yourself, state the purpose of the call, and move into your extended positioning statement. In such cases, the purpose of the call might sound like this: "My major objective today is to give you a broad picture of our capabilities so that you will be better able to make use of the resources we offer." This would then be followed by as much positioning material as you feel is appropriate.
How should I respond when the client asks questions early in the call?
You don’t ever want to give a client the impression that you are evading questions; so, in general, you should respond quickly and honestly to any questions put to you during the call. Be aware, however, that control of the call usually belongs to the person asking the questions.
There is particular danger in responding in detail too early in the call to questions about your product line or the particular idea or solution you have in mind for the client. The danger is that you will be duped into proposing solutions before you have identified or developed the client's needs. This makes it very easy for the client to object to the products or services you offer.
If, in the OPENING phase of the call, the client asks what products or services the seller thinks are appropriate for the client’s company, the seller should say something like, “I’d be happy to give you some specific recommendations. But first, may I ask you a few questions about your operations? I want to make sure my suggestions fit your particular needs.”