The Exploratory Meeting is a key element in the sales process. Typically, the meeting will have been arranged after qualification via the telephone and a decision made by both parties that it would be mutually beneficial to meet.
It is the exploratory meeting that will allow the professional salesperson to set the ground rules and get a feel for the client and their needs.
As this is normally the first meeting, it is also where the potential client will get his first impression of you. Therefore the way you look, act and conduct the meeting will have a direct bearing on whether or not you are able to proceed to the next.
Finally, the objective of the meeting is to gain commitment to the next stage and NOT to try and get the order.
Key Elements to a Successful Exploratory Meeting
Pre-planning and preparation:
- You will have confirmed your appointment in writing or e-mail.
- You will have already carried out some initial investigation into the company – the ethics, etc. – and if time has allowed, you will have probably obtained some company literature and a copy of their annual report.
- You will be armed with names of clients your company has already successfully helped within their market.
- You will arrive in plenty of time.
- Remember – Never sit down in reception areas, be psychologically prepared.
It is important that you do not ‘launch’ into your sales pitch as soon as you meet, but that you try and put your client (and therefore yourself) at ease by finding some common mutual ground to ‘break the ice’ with. Good rapport will result in the potential client being less defensive.
Remember – 86% of buying decisions are based first on emotion – i.e. do they trust you?
This should be obvious, but is often forgotten through nerves, etc. Remember, you are a ‘guest’ in their environment – so always be courteous.
Ask the client how long he/she is able to put aside for the meeting and adjust your itinerary accordingly. If the time allocated is insufficient, then you need to make a judgment as to whether you wish to carry on or reschedule when they can give you more time.
If a time is given and agreed upon, do not ignore it, they may have a meeting with the Chairman! Five minutes before the time allocation is up, reconfirm that they need to finish – more often than not, if they are interested, they will find more time. If they can’t, then use the last five minutes to summarize and agree the next stage.
You will need to make notes. These are invaluable as they are a record of your meeting and you will find yourself referring back to them throughout the sales cycle. Ask the client if you can make notes – it’s polite!
Confirm Company Business:
You need to confirm the market they are in, ask them who they supply to, who they buy from, who are their competitors – they may be clients of yours. If so, tell them – it’s reassuring to a potential client that you have knowledge of their industry. If they are not clients and you get this order, they should definitely become prospects – so make a note of them. By asking what the company actually does will differentiate you from the traditional sales rep who is only interested in the sale. You will get an insight into the company’s culture, its strategies, etc. People like people who are interested in what they are doing and trying to achieve or have achieved – that’s a fact!
Remember, every organisation has commercial concerns – what are theirs?
Confirm Position, Role within the Company:
Check that they are who you believe them to be, find out if their title is indeed just a title or whether they have the authority that goes with it. Never assume because they have the title that they have the authority – life is not always that straight forward…
Remember also that people like talking about themselves, their responsibilities, their achievements – so ask the questions and then listen, it is at this stage you can often pick up the political elements of the company. It will also enhance and strengthen the rapport between you, especially if nobody has ever bothered to ask them in the past about themselves and their background.
Decision Making Unit:
Ask who else is involved in this project, identify the buying influences, but also ask what the process is going to be, what are they expecting, benchmarks, reference visits? If you have already enquired as to their position and role, then asking about the DMU will be a natural progression and should not attract any resistance. Remember though, do not use the term ‘DMU’ in any shape or form!
You need to know whether there is a budget, has it been approved and if so, how much? There is no way of hiding this request for information. However, if you have followed the previous elements, your client should by now see you as a partner, someone who can help and, therefore, they should not feel threatened by you asking such a straightforward question. If they ask why you need to know the budget, tell them you need to ensure that neither of you are wasting their time and that you can supply a solution that they can afford.
Part of your telephone qualification should have been to establish timescales. However, these can often change so you need to confirm them, not only in this meeting, but also periodically throughout the sales cycle.
You need to be aware of any resistance that the client feels may occur to this purchase and where possible, offer advice on how to neutralize such resistance – e.g. if they feel that the IT department are going to resist, then wouldn’t it be wise to get them involved, or at least keep them informed, so they do not feel threatened – maybe that is something you could do? If the resistance comes from the users, you can get them, or a representative of theirs involved, so that they feel they have some ownership. They are then less likely to resist when the goods are delivered. Is there anything that may restrain them from progressing further? E.g. is the purchase directly linked to them receiving a large order?
You need to find out how they will decide upon the final supplier/solution, what will differentiate them or it from the rest? You then need to match your solution and credentials with their buying criteria. If you are dealing with a larger company, they may have a preferred suppliers list – so ask how you get on it and who can you talk to in the buying department, so that you may introduce yourself as a potential supplier and find out what they require. It will save a lot of headaches if you establish it now, rather than at decision time. It is also advisable to find out what their standard terms of payment are, as you will need to bear this in mind when you quote.
It is imperative to find out who else they are talking to and why – e.g. are they the existing supplier? If so, how have they been performing – although it would suggest not that well if the client is talking to you… But remember, never assume, it may be company policy to go out to three suppliers – in that case, are you just making up the numbers? Never criticize the competition, but rather emphasize your strengths that will illuminate their weaknesses.
Ask them what are they hoping to achieve? The answer to this question is always interesting. Hopefully, it will confirm what you have already surmised, but sometimes it can throw up some unusual reasons for wishing to purchase. If the latter is the case, you need to ensure that this is a good enough reason to progress with the sales cycle and for both you and the company to spend further time and money on your solution. Whatever they are hoping to achieve, you must ensure that your proposal proves that it can match that achievement.
Always ask if there is any other information that they feel would be useful for you to have at this point. This will give them the opportunity to volunteer any other data which you may not have asked for. It is also a great get out clause if, during the sales cycle, something crops up that you are not aware of – after all, you did ask them if there was anything else they felt you should know.
A good exploratory meeting will contain a number of summaries to confirm that you have interpreted the answers to your questions correctly. If you are unable to summarize during the meeting, you must ensure that you at least do so at the end of the meeting – it is a neat way of bringing the meeting to a close and it proves to the client that you were listening and understand his requirements. It is also a good way of achieving commitment.
By this time, we must obtain commitment from the client to progress to the next stage – whether it is another meeting, a demonstration or presentation. By using the summary, you will be able to introduce the next stage and therefore get commitment to it easily.
You must always leave an exploratory meeting with commitment from the client to move to the next stage.