Monday, January 28, 2008

Don’t ask; don’t tell

Imagine that you are firmly ensconced in the prospect’s rust-colored vinyl visitor’s chair (design circa 1972) after having spent the past 30 minutes deftly explaining how wonderful your stuff is. By asking intelligent questions, you have collected a lot of good information to help capture the customer. You have also demonstrated a good understanding of the prospect’s challenges, answered her questions sufficiently, and have begun to develop a nice rapport. This could be the one, you think—the first customer. Then, just as you are putting your notes back in your genuine faux leather briefcase and discussing a follow-up appointment to go over the details of the multi-million dollar agreement, she asks, “How many customers do you have?”

You pause for a second, looking at the prospect as if the issue had never occurred to you. You respond with something like, “ “None, yet. So, you’ll have our full attention. And I won’t have to go through 27 layers of management to get things done on your behalf.” You have just answered the question succinctly and reinforced it as a positive. Then you say, “Now, about that follow up appointment. How about next Wednesday?”

You may be surprised how seldom prospects ask about your company’s size and background. They are more interested in what you can do than how big you are. Should the question arise, try to emanate confidence that the size of your company matters only in that you will be ultra-responsive to the prospect when she becomes a customer. Your prospect will be more inclined to share your confidence at a result.

In cops and lawyers shows on TV, the hotshot attorney always prepares his witness by saying,
“Just answer the question. Never offer any more information than you have to.” You can use the same approach when the “How many customers do you have” question arises. Answer the question and then direct the conversation toward more important stuff.

This is the more important stuff: When you tell the prospect that she would be your first customer, make her feel comfortable about it. Let her see your confidence.

You: I will be just as dependable as anybody else you might choose as your provider for this service. In fact, I will be more reliable.”

Your prospect: Really? How so?

You: When I go to bed at night, I will dream about how my company can address your needs. I will think about it last thing at the end of the day and first thing in the morning, too. Now tell me more about your expectations so that I can explain how we will meet them…

Your prospect: That’s not necessary. You’ve dazzled me with your sincerity. Let me get my pen so that I can sign this agreement. In fact, I think I’ll take two of what you’re selling.

OK, it may not go exactly that way, but just because a prospect asks you how many customers you have doesn’t necessarily mean it is big issue for her. A prospect may be simply running through a mental list of questions she would normally ask in trying to separate the pretenders from the real thing. (Remember, you’re the real thing.) It’s also possible, if she’s not the ultimate decision maker, that she’s anticipating what her boss will ask her. She may have already made up her mind, and she’s ready to go to bat for you. Or, perhaps, she’s just leading up to what she feels are more important questions. Whether you have one or 100 customers wouldn’t break or seal the deal in her mind. It may just be one item in a litany of things she wants to note. If a prospect wants badly enough to buy what you have, she may even help you along in providing the right reasons to make it a smart decision.

If your lack of customers makes her decision a questionable move, she may probe further until she finds sufficient justification. Perhaps the newness of your company will be a bigger deal to you than it will be to her. Should such details be a concern to the prospect, however, they will probably come up relatively early in the conversation, which gives you plenty of time to address them.

In your company’s early days, you may occasionally have conversations like this one:

Prospect: How many employees work specifically on making improvements to your product?

You: One, give or take.

Prospect: Just one? Small companies make me a little nervous.

You: First, let me show you how the product works. If you think it offers a solution to your needs, I would like to discuss further how my company’s size could be your advantage.

Prospect: OK.

After the prospect sees the product, you can anticipate one of two results:
1) The prospect will worry less about the size of your staff because he really likes the product.
2) He wasn’t very impressed by what he saw, and so the size of your company would not matter anyway. His feelings about the actual product ultimately mattered more than the number of people working on it.

The prospect may not care so much if you have one or more persons working on a job, as long as you can demonstrate good results. You can devise ways to prove that the smallness of your company is no liability.

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