Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Take all prospects seriously

In the early days of my online registration software company, I called the executive director of an education organization in North Carolina. The moment I introduced myself, she said that I should arrange a demo with her assistant. I had no great expectations for the call, because, from what I could tell, the organization was not very large nor did it have a large budget. (Before making any call, my research most often consisted of visiting a prospect’s web site to see what types of events required registrations.)

The North Carolina organization seemed as though it could benefit from online registration, but I didn’t get the feeling they held a lot of events. Therefore, I wasn't expecting a huge sale that would fund my children’s college educations. However, I was encouraged that the decision maker told me to set up the demo with her assistant. It would be up to the assistant to decide if our software was worthy, but the boss given me a tiny boost of credibility by passing me along to her assistant.

The assistant--I'll call her Betty--quickly agreed to an online demonstration. About five minutes into it, however, things seemed to sour quickly. Betty began asking questions that had nothing to do with what I was showing her. Her biggest concern seemed to come out of nowhere. “How does your software identify if a person registering is legitimate?” I gave her a list of ways it could help with her problem. But no matter how I tried, I couldn’t get Betty past her concern. She was certain that people would try to register for her workshops—which were free—when they shouldn’t be allowed to. It cost a lot of money to host the workshops, she said, and she wanted to make sure entry was limited to those who were members of the organization. Understood, I said, but I wondered to myself how many persons would actually want to sneak into a workshop on new federal regulations regarding the teaching of math to 8th graders.

I quickly came to believe that Betty didn’t want our online registration software nearly as much I wanted her to have it. To me, her concern was so small compared to all the benefits I thought online registration could give her. After repeated attempts to address her worry, I finally said, “Perhaps our software simply isn’t right for you. Maybe we can talk at some other point when you’re more interested.” It was my way of saying I didn’t want to waste any more time.

I was way off the mark. “Oh, we’re very interested,” Betty assured me. “We’ve been talking about this for a long time. It’s just that one thing about rogue registrations that always trips us up when we try to get online registration.” I then realized that if we could solve Betty’s problem, we had a good shot at the business. After further exploration, I discovered the potential for the deal was a lot bigger than I had projected. In fact, Betty and her organization soon became a high-paying, low-maintenance customer.

I had made the mistake of assuming that Betty offered very little potential as customer, and approached her likewise. Even if she had turned out to be a small customer, or no customer at all, I later realized that she deserved my full attention. All prospects do.

Relax a little

Nothing scares a prospect away faster than desperation. The more pressure you put on yourself to get that first client, the more pressure your prospects may feel as well.
Here’s a story from the early days of my company, a provider of online registration software: We had only a handful of customers and were still hurting for revenue when we were contacted by a district organization of Rotary International in Silicon Valley. (Inbound plus: Uncovering new markets) The Rotary district wanted to switch to a new online registration provider for their annual conference.

At first, we did everything we could, just as normal, to win the business. This included online demos and responding quickly to a myriad of questions. Even though the prospect was three time zones away, we made ourselves available late into the evenings. We didn’t build up ourselves to sound bigger than we were, but we put our experiences with our meager pool of customers in the best light. However, it seemed apparent to us as the sales cycle progressed that we had little chance of landing the account. For one thing, our software was still relatively new, and there were a few features the Rotary officials needed that our software did not yet include.

This was nothing new; we often made key enhancements to the software based on what prospects wanted, often at little or no additional charge. However, we sensed that the decision makers with the club were only mildly interested in working with us. Because we needed revenue—any revenue—we could have tried to win the Rotary’s business by saying, “Just tell us what we have to do to persuade you to choose us. We’ll make all the upgrades you need. We’ll discount our price some more. We’ll wash your car every Saturday for the next three months. Anything you want. Please, please, please.”

Who knows? We might have landed them as a customer that way, or our begging may have turned them off. Instead, we relaxed, assuming we had little chance of getting the sale. We said we could make the enhancements the Rotary wanted, but at full price. They had another request that was a little outside our realm, but we agreed to meet that request, too, at full price. Then, rather than calling them constantly to ask them if they had made a decision, we focused our attention on what we thought were more promising prospects. Two days later, the Rotary agreed to the full proposal. At the time, they were our highest-paying customer. And once the Rotary District became a customer, we went back into mega customer service mode, trying to give them a lot more than they had paid for. Years later, they remain a customer.

Particularly in the early going, it will be natural to put a lot of pressure on yourself to turn each prospect into a customer. You will be nearly desperate for their business. Sometimes, however, you have to relax a little, and to allow the prospect to relax a little, too.