Breaking Through (Part Two): A Roadmap to More Effective (and, respectful) Prospect Engagement

Last week, I wrote about a somewhat humbling lesson I learned about being open to inbound sales and business development communication. You can read that, here, but I’ll quickly summarize it for you:

  1. I made a snarky, sarcastic post on LinkedIn about cold outreach messages.
  2. It got an unexpectedly high response rate.
  3. While many agreed with my snark, some other folks suggested that I was misguided.
  4. I wondered if they were right.
  5. They were, at least a little.
  6. Lesson learned.
  7. I still think there’s a better way.

So, in an effort to right my own wrongs, I decided to share some outreach and communication practices that have served me well in my own career. Are they the best, ever? Probably not. But over the years, I’ve learned what works for me, so that’s what I’ll share. My goal is that this can be decent reference material for anyone who’s struggling to break through the noise and make a connection. (In this sense, I hope our readers will share this content so that others might see it.)

 Staging is Really, Really Important

I think about sales and business development communication as fitting into distinct segments within the decision-making cycle. I can get pretty granular with this stuff, but I’ll keep it simple, here, and boil it down to three segments. The first is preliminary engagement, the second is discovery and the third is commercialization. If you work backwards from the goal, this is pretty linear:

  1. if you hope to form a commercial relationship with someone (ie: sell something),
  2. you must first understand them; to do that, you’ve got to create a dialogue,
  3. which means you’ve got to get them on the phone (or get a meeting).

 I’ve organized my thoughts in these categories, below:

 Stage One: Preliminary Engagement

This is really the most critical stage in my opinion. An analogist might think to compare this to the snap of a football, a plane taking off or the foundation for a house. The point is: without a clean beginning, everything else will be more likely to fail. Drawing on personal experience, I can point to countless awkward business discussions that could have been improved with a cleaner introduction. And because I think this process’s only deliverable goal is to facilitate a 1:1 dialogue, being messy at the start is unacceptable. Here are some things I always strive for in early stage discussions:

  1. Assume that your prospect is really, really busy. Then, stop assuming. By this, I mean that before you can develop empathy for your prospect (which is, like, critical to selling stuff), you must first secure the opportunity to develop it. And this means you have to find a way for them to process your outreach and agree to talk to you. If you assume that they’re very, very busy, and that your message is going to fit awkwardly into an already over-loaded day, you’re probably right. So, choose your words wisely.
  2. Be respectful and acknowledge what’s going on, here. Tell them that you’re trying to determine your value to them, that you’ve got a hunch you could be helpful. But, that you’ve got to learn more to know for sure.
  3. Keep it very simple and brief. A good rule of thumb is to give yourself a maximum of five sentences: one to introduce yourself, two to describe your product or service, one to present your goal and one to secure the next step.
  4. Don’t sell anything. Seriously. This is why some people can’t stand some salespeople – bad ones try to sell stuff without any thought or empathy for their prospect’s need. You’re not there yet – the best deal you’re going to close right now is a discussion.
  5. End with a yes/no question. State and serve your purpose. Say something like “I’d really like to better understand you/your business/your company – with a goal of seeing if we’re a fit for you. Would you be open to spending a few minutes with me on the phone to do this?”

Stage Two: Discovery

If we’ve done our job in the preliminary stage, we’re on to our first 1:1 engagement with our counterpart. With a prospect on the line, I think it’s really important that this stage lead to an understanding the potential for this new relationship. This should be focused on education – for both parties. Below are some things I’ve found helpful in my own career when I’m in the discovery phase:

  1. Maintain the respect you established in the introduction, as well as the candor. I like to begin the discussion with a straightforward and simple statement of my goal. “I want to learn enough today to know whether we’re a good fit for one another, and I want to make sure you get to do the same.”
  2. Suggest a specific format, but defer to your counterpart on who goes first.
  3. When it’s your turn, be brief and clear.
  4. When it’s their turn, ask great, simple questions that help further the education.
  5. Whatever you think you’ve learned, restate it and ask for confirmation that you’ve got it right.
  6. If you think it’s a fit, let the other party know what you’re thinking at a high level, and then ask if you’re on the right track. If you get a yes, ask them if they’d like to chat about how the relationship might come together.
  7. Give them the option of a break. At this point, even if your counterpart likes the idea of working with you, they might need a break. For any of a number of reasons. Maybe they need to chat with some folks on their end, or they need to put an NDA in place. Or, they might just be fatigued. Conversely, they might be reaching for their checkbook and pen. With good feedback in hand, just ask them how they would like to proceed.

One quick note of caution, the reason so many find the next phase (commercialization) to difficult/scary/sleazy is that they’ve not yet done the work required to get there. If you don’t think you know enough to suggest a commercial outcome, you’re right, and you shouldn’t do it yet. There’s nothing wrong with not being ready to close – you just need to stay in the discovery phase until you have what you need.

 Stage Three: Commercialization

As noted above, this phase rattles plenty of folks, but if you’ve put in the work, there’s nothing to fear. I think about it like this:

 Through respectful outreach, you’ve managed to develop a contact.

  1. Within the discovery phase, you learned what you need to know in order to call them a viable prospect.
  2. And, because you’ve worked hard to get consensus, you’ve got their blessing to press on and discuss a commercial structure.

While there’s plenty of work left to do, commercializing a new relationship shouldn’t be feared. Here’s how I like to move forward:

Be clear and make your suggestion: tell your counterpart what you want to do and ask for his/her agreement that it’s the right format.

  1. Ask them if they understand your perspective, and if they have any other questions.
  2. When there are no more questions, ask them what they think about your suggestion(s).
  3. Stop, listen. Breath. Whatever their feedback ends up being, consider it. If it’s positive, move forward. If it’s not, back up, and ask where you slipped. Then, work your way back down the funnel again.
  4. Once you’re confident that you’ve got this dialed in, ask for their commitment to move forward. Don’t worry. If you’ve done your job, this should feel like a natural next step.

That’s all from me, folks. Hope this helps!

  • Michael Ferree says:

    Great article JT. I think these steps are crucial in earning trust and ultimately new business and I appreciate you outlining your approach for others to benefit from. Keep it up.

    Michael Ferree
    Customer Solutions Group

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