I’m in the room, having a conversation about our capabilities with a CEO and some of his team. He’s looking to buy services just like ours. They really need help and my firm would be perfect for them, but even if the CEO agrees with that statement, there’s no way he’s going to hint that he does. You know the type. #Plays-it-close-to-the-chest
He’s spent the last 60 minutes of a 90-minute meeting peppering me with questions. We’re the last firm of the three they’re considering. I’m guessing he’s learned what to ask and where to probe from the previous meetings. He’s smart and his questions are pointed. You’ve been in the room with folks like him. #Scalpel-sharp-questioner
But I got schooled by some of the best: my favorite professor in the college of design where I got my master’s degree used to rip my work off the walls, throw it on the floor and walk all over it as he critiqued the other students’ work. Tough love; he toughened my skin. He helped me learn some techniques to keep my cool. So I’m working to keep this encounter conversational and the CEO is doing his best to hijack the subjects we cover. He’s jumping all over, from topic to topic. It’s pretty clear he’s looking at this as a chance to grab some free consulting. You know the type. #Gimme-gimme
And I don’t mind. I’ve got some “game” of my own. I’m happy to talk in generalities about what other firms in his sector are doing, about best practices, and about the pitfalls that face firms like his. But it’s my intention not to give him what he wants. I won’t tell him exactly what he should do right now, because I can’t. “I haven’t diagnosed your situation, so I can’t prescribe a solution.” I smile. He smiles but I think I made him pause. And then he’s back at it, probing, questioning. You’ve been in the room with folks like him. #Always-ready-to-challenge
I have to work hard to keep his attention where it belongs, on the topic that will help him and his team the most: on strategy and the big picture—not on the tactics that he continues to ask about. He doesn’t need tactics, not now. He needs a sound strategy, particularly since his firm is in talks to acquire one or more competitors. They want growth, and they want to expand their service and geographic footprint. I hear through the grapevine that the acquisitions being considered are more opportunistic than strategic. So I can’t tell; who knows; he may have a strategy, but if he does, he’s not going to share it with me. He’s smart and he’s driven. You know the type. #Doing-it-his-own-way—right-or-wrong
He asks to see some work. I show him a case study. Not a process-framed case study, because this isn’t a closing meeting. It’s just a chance for us to qualify each other, to figure out if there’s a fit. I show him the highlights from a past client, how we helped one of his bigger competitors navigate an acquisition. But if I spend too long on any one part of the story, or, god-forbid, any one slide, he glances at his watch and picks up his phone. I take my cues from him and move on, mirroring the lightening-quick attention span of my audience, skipping across slides. My finger is mashed on the “slide advance” button. There’s hardly time for the screen to refresh before we’re on to the next one. Not my preferred pace, but if it makes him comfortable, I’m fine with it. When I finish, he comments positively about our process. That’s a win for me. If I’m going to harness his apparent ADHD and help him build long-term value, it will be by getting him to follow our process, rather than hijacking it. I’m sure you’ve been in the room with folks like him. #Easily-distracted-and-apparently-easily-bored
While we’ve been chatting, the VP and other members of his team have been taking lots of notes. The CEO takes notes on occasion as well. I consider it a win whenever I reference one of my whitepapers and he picks up his pen to jot something down. Later in the conversation he slams all whitepapers, and, by implication, the recommendation I had just made that he increase the amount of resources he’s devoting to creating content. “I hate whitepapers,” he says. That’s okay, the book I wrote is on the table and he thanks me for bringing him an autographed copy. It’s clear The Flip has happened; he sees me as the expert, even though there’s a permafrost of doubt. You know the type. #distrusts-marketing-and-distrusts-consultants
But while I may be an expert, I’m far from a perfect salesperson. I let him distract me from the big picture with his incessant questioning. I miss one particularly potent chance to drive home our differentiation. I don’t handle the value conversation all that well, but instead I jump right to the topic of prices. Oops. Well, you know the type. #I’ve-still-got-lots-and-lots-of-room-to-improve
That being said, I do manage to get a couple of things right: I give him a wide range of prices, and I start with a comfortably large price first, anchoring high. I have no doubt that he’ll try to negotiate. Once I put a big number on the table I pause, waiting. “How does that sound?” I ask. He doesn’t blink. He’s cool, answering: “I don’t know. I don’t have a lot of experience looking at these kinds of services.” Well, liar, liar pants-on-fire. If we’re the third firm they’ve talked to, they have to have a clear idea about pricing. I’m betting our prices are pretty high. That’s okay by me. Guessing who my competitors are based on geography, we’re probably a whole lot higher than the first, and higher enough than the second that they’d have to see real value in our offering before they engage us. Have I shown them real value? I’ve put up metrics that we’ve gathered from past engagements, but does he see value in those? I can’t tell. I’m sure you’ve been in the room with folks just like him. #Poker-face
To respond to his unspoken doubt about our price, I borrow some language that one of their leaders wrote in answer to a question in our needs assessment. “Our prices tend towards the high side, but we’re not trying to be the cheapest.” He nods in agreement. And then he’s ready to move on.
But before he can, I seize the moment. “I feel so strongly about our ability to help you that…” I pause, waiting for the note-taking to stop and for all eyes to lift from their notepads or laptops. I let the silence stretch, and I make sure to look right into the CEO’s eyes as I continue, “…I’m willing to give you a money-back guarantee.”
There’s silence. His eyes widen and he mutters something sotto voce. Was that “Okay, that’s impressive?” No lie, that’s what I thought I heard, but I can’t say for sure. I make a mental note to ask the woman who set up the meeting, who’s sitting at the far end of the table. I proceed to give him the (very few) details of our money-back guarantee. I restate my confidence that we can help him.
He says, “Okay, I’ve asked a LOT of questions.” As if throwing me a bone, he gives me a turn. “What do you want to know?” I ask a few crucial questions, “Who are the decision makers?” (They’re in the room.) “When will the decision be made?” (By the end of the year.) “Why shouldn’t we work together?” (Well, we’ve got to think about it, and we’re considering whether we should start before the merger is final.) His answers are cursory and he’s looking at his watch and the tone shifts and the meeting is done. There are pleasantries all around, but we’re done.
We’re done—because he’s done. He’s already moved on. He’s looking at his watch; he’s checking his phone. An email from a spammer is probably more important to him than I am, right now. You know the type. You’ve been in the room with folks like him.
As I’m packing my computer into my bag, he tosses one more baited hook in my direction. “Oh, can I get a copy of your slides, to show the board? We’ve got a meeting coming up.” I refuse, politely. There’s no way I’m going to share my slides with him. I’ll send him a link to a video, and a few PDFs, but I’ve made the impression I’m going to make. Bowing down while I offer him everything he asks for? No way. He has enough to make the decision. Either we’re right for him, or we’re not. He’s probably already decided.
Don’t you hate that? The sparring, the power plays, the jockeying for position? I used to, but on the way out the door, I’m smiling. I’m having the time of my life. I put almost no effort into this meeting, other than reading their answers to our needs assessment and arranging this trip. I didn’t snatch their logo off of some website and customize the presentation. I didn’t pore over their website, trying to glean every scrap of information I could, hoping that I’d impress them with my knowledge of their specific situation. I didn’t really prepare anything, except to look over their website, ask one of my staff to pull together our standard collection of brochures and grab one of my books on the way out the door.
Because I didn’t put much into this, I didn’t have to pretend to know something about them that I don’t actually know. Because I didn’t put much into this, I didn’t get anything wrong, except for all the mistakes I made on my side. But that’s stuff I can control. That’s stuff that I can work on. That has nothing to do with them, or with any prospect. That’s about me.
Honestly, I don’t have to know everything about them to show them that we can help. Right now, I feel a little like a chess master, the kind who plays 20 games at once, walking from board to board. I recognize the patterns and respond accordingly. I don’t have to devote weeks and weeks preparing for each separate engagement, and I don’t have to customize something to leave behind, hoping to impress them with our preparation. Of course, if they pay us, everything will change and the obligation will shift, and then it becomes our solemn duty to know everything we can so we can help them as much as possible. But that’s still in the future—maybe, maybe not. I hope we get the job; we could help them, a lot. But maybe we won’t. I wasn’t perfect, in the room.
But right now, I’m free; no obligations. As I walk out of the room, the only things I leave behind are our brochures and my book. While it would pain me, I’ve got to be prepared for the fact that my competitors will get their hands on our brochures, and they can certainly buy my book from Amazon. I hope they do.
Oh, I forgot, there’s one more thing I leave behind. I leave behind the impression I made when there was total silence in the room, when I put my confidence on the line and offered our money-back guarantee.
I doubt anyone else left that behind.
I’m having the time of my life, whether I win this job or not. I came into this meeting armed only with our clearly defined process, our extensive portfolio of measurable results as we solve problems for firms just like theirs, and our (dare I say vast?) experience. And I’m armed with my skill in sales, honed and polished in meetings just like these. Was I perfect? No. Can I get better? Damn straight.
Standing and waiting for the elevator I realize this is the same way I’d go into almost any meeting. As a Jedi-in-training, sharpening my tools against each and every opportunity. Knowing I’ll never get it perfect, but striving to get better each and every time. The feeling is heady.
I hope you know that feeling. You can get there.