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The First Five Minutes

By Heather Baldwin

The first five minutes of a sales meeting is like the foundation of a house – get it right and everything else falls into place fairly smoothly. Bungle it, and you’ll find forward progress is impossible without first repairing the damage. Clearly, your pre-call planning should include time devoted to these first crucial minutes of the meeting. But what should you be thinking about? In his book
Rain Making, Ford Harding, president of Maplewood, New Jersey-based Harding & Co., says there are five components to consider:

  1. Personal link. While you want to steer clear of mundane chatter about the weather, you do need to establish good chemistry. One way to do that is by creating a quick personal link. Maybe you both know the same person – acknowledge your mutual acquaintance with a simple, "I understand you know Bill Thompson." Or identify a shared experience. Did you both attend the same college? Belong to the same organization? Run the same marathon? Alternatively, you could mention something about the prospect’s company. Perhaps it has been mentioned in the news for something positive. Whatever works best, make the link but keep it short.
  2. Set the agenda. Let the prospect know what you propose to accomplish in this meeting and request the client’s agreement. For instance: "On the phone, you mentioned you are reducing the size of your company and need to get out of a lease. Maybe you could describe the specifics of this case, and then if I think we can help you we’ll talk about what we can do. Does this sound right to you?" This kind of agenda statement ensures that you and the prospect are both on the same page and that you’ll be delivering what he or she is looking for.
  3. Positioning statement. If you’ve never done business with this prospect before, you may need a positioning statement to establish your credibility. Positioning statements vary depending on the context of the meeting. It might be used to introduce your firm: "We help our clients recruit top talent for senior positions." Or to change a current client’s perception: "You know us largely for our strategy consulting work, but many of our clients want us to help them with implementation. We now provide implementation services on roughly 80 percent of our strategy projects." Or you might want to position a colleague you’ve brought along. One note of caution: do not use the positioning statement to delve into a history of your company, a description of your products, or a dissertation on your brilliant success with other clients. You simply want to establish enough credibility that the client will feel comfortable opening up to you.
  4. Stage-setting anecdotes. Tell one or two anecdotes that illustrate what other companies are doing or the kinds of issues you work on. Again, these are short – no more than about six sentences. Your goal here isn’t to make the case for hiring you, says Harding, it’s to give the client enough information about you to be comfortable talking to you about his issues and to stimulate his thinking so he’s ready to talk.
  5. Ask the big question. Everything to this point is a lead-in to a broad question that gets the prospect talking about a subject of importance to him or her that you might be able to help with. Ideally, your question "gets you to a subject that both of you can benefit from talking about," says Harding.

Done well, all this takes about five minutes and "tees the client up" to talk about an important issue that you might be able to help with. When everything goes well and the client is talking freely at the five or six-minute mark, the sale, says Harding, is half made.