5 great things to say at the start of meetings with prospective clients

You’ve only ever got one chance to make a first impression (weird, huh). It doesn’t matter whether you’re going on a date, meeting the future in-laws, going for a job interview or meeting with a potential client for the first time – what you do and say in those first couple of minutes is absolutely critical.

Science tells us that it’s the non-verbals that have the most impact on first impressions (so smile, stand up straight and lean in when you talk), but what comes out of your mouth is next in the first impressions firing line so you’d better make it good. When meeting with a potential client, it’s the first fork in the road where your options are to either become a trusted advisor or a commoditised salesperson.

This is not to say you can’t recover from a bad beginning – you can, but you’ll have to work even harder as you’ve already undermined some trust. When I first met Kathryn (my Marketing Director, but she used to be my client) I was inadvertently 10 minutes late to the meeting – not exactly the best thing to do to demonstrate reliability, which we know is a key element of trust. But I worked hard to recover and by the end of the meeting, without really knowing much about exactly what I do, she’d signed me up to run a pilot program, and her company became my best client for the next three years (BTW I found out later that she’d had already had several meetings with another large, multinational provider but had hated their sales process. I’ve asked her to tell you more about this herself in a future blog post).

The key at the start of the meeting is to show that you’re only there to give value to the other person in the meeting, not as a result of what they might implement if they choose to engage you. You need to enter with the presumption that they may in fact have no need whatsoever for your offering.

So, here are a few ideas for things that I think are great to say at the start of meetings to set you on a path to becoming a trusted advisor:

5 great things to say:

1. “I really appreciate you taking the time to see me.”  This shows them that you value the time they’re giving up to spend with you.
2. “I’m hoping I can share some ideas of what I’ve seen other organisations implement which may be relevant to you.” This shows you want to give the other person a return for the time they are investing with you – and it’s not all about you and what your company does.
3. “What would you like to get out of this meeting?” This shows you want to focus on what the client wants to get from investing this time, not your own agenda.
4. “How do you feel about how business is going?”  This shows you want to understand rather than tell, and also the word ‘feel’ is more likely to get a personal response, helping you to build instant rapport.
5. “We have an hour in the diary, are you still OK for a full hour?” This shows respect for the fact their time is precious and things may have changed since the meeting was arranged. But be prepared with a good response if they say no!

How about things you should try to avoid saying? Things that will set you down the path of commoditised salesperson?

5 not so great things to say:

1. “What keeps you awake at night?” While I love big picture questions, this is the most overused of all – I call it a ‘buzz question’. First you need to establish if they are a big picture or detailed person – if they are big picture, a future focused question is great to ask in the first couple of minutes….just don’t pick this one.
2. “I’d love to tell you all about our company and offering.” This is totally self orientated, and assumes they have any interest at all in your offering which you haven’t established yet.
3. “What can I tell you today?” Since you don’t yet know each other, and you don’t yet understand anything about them and their business, they cannot answer this any context. This will lead to an uninformed, push-based sales conversation in an instant.
4. “What is your biggest challenge?” If the person you are speaking to is very positive or optimistic this will immediately put them off. They don’t see things as challenges, they see things as opportunities to improve. And it almost sounds as if you’ re waiting to pounce with how your offering will help. So first, establish if they are a risk-oriented or opportunistic person.
5. “I’m sure that the hour will be well worth your time.” This sounds presumptive without first showing you want to understand what is happening for them and what they want from the meeting.

In looking at these two lists, can you tell what the difference is between the great questions and the not so great questions? In general:
– the great questions seek to understand the other person and/or are putting yourself in their shoes.
– the not so great questions are either coming from the salespersons perspective and their own agenda, or seeking to understand the other person without first understanding their behavioural style (such as whether they are big picture or detailed, risk or opportunity oriented). If you spend the first two minutes of a meeting asking a big picture person a load of detailed questions….you’re unlikely to get a meeting again.

What stories have you got about great and not so great questions or statements you’ve heard at the beginning of meetings? I’d love to hear them.

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