Reprinted with permission from Accounting Today.
As a former auditor, I was trained to do a thorough job, and not fake it. So when it comes to one of my passionate topics, opportunity pursuit, I really have to get on my soapbox. I cannot describe the almost daily examples of poor pursuit techniques I encounter with accountants attempting to land opportunities. In this article I’m taking aim at three (believe me there are tons more) of the most persistent and dangerous misconceptions about reeling in the big fish.
When I present these ideas to audiences they typically respond with a tsunami of incredulity. “Gale, you’re just wrong on this one! How could this possibly work?!” After trying these methods the response is more along the lines of, “Wow, Gale, how did I ever win a piece of business in the past?”
Misperception #1. Never go it alone.
If you want to increase your chances of a big win, come into your first meeting with a two-some or a group, right? Wrong! One of the key objectives during pursuit should be to uncover the prospect’s personal motivation, which is the driver in most business decisions. But people do not reveal such motivations in a group. This is so foundational that you inadvertently shoot yourself in the foot by coming in with others. The prospect automatically puts up an invisible wall of wariness. And you don’t even know it.
Before someone will reveal their personal objectives, you’ll need to establish a trusting relationship, and relationships are built person to person. If you have any doubt, think back to your first date with your spouse or partner. You didn’t bring a friend along, right?
Because you come in numbers, there’s also the prospect’s perception that you’ve come to talk about yourselves rather than about his or her needs and challenges. Big no-no.
When you have weeks, months or years to get to know someone, the first meeting one-on-one is not nearly as critical. But opportunity pursuit is often a race against the clock, so establishing trust and uncovering personal objectives needs to be done as quickly and efficiently as possible.
I learned this tenet of sales success in the hallowed halls of IBM. Use one-on-one meetings to persuade and influence, and groups to look each other over and convey information. As trust is created, alternate individual sessions with group meetings. But the individual meeting must come first to set the right tone of establishing a relationship of trust and openness.
Misperception #2. Never talk about your competitors.
Au contraire! It’s essential to learn about your competitors by entering purposefully and proactively into the topic with your buyer. I big piece of your win strategy is based upon competitive dynamics. With plenty of confidence and no trepidation, ask about suitors. Convey the (correct) idea that your due diligence includes understanding what is attractive to the potential buyer about the various alternatives.
The more your discussions touch on substantive issues, including potential providers, the more you are perceived as a trusted advisor, not just as a vendor of audit or tax services. When you can dispassionately question the prospect about their view of the alternatives, you are making this shift.
In this way you subtly but importantly change the message from “Please do business with my firm,” to “I’m here to ensure that we discuss your options, regardless of who gets the work.” I know this sounds strange, but by making this shift, you open your conversation up to really understanding the prospect, and this helps your odds of winning.
Misconception #3: Delve deep into the price conversation early in the process.
Open the window wide and toss this one as far as you can. If you want to win big opportunities, find out the pricing parameters in your early meeting. But do not have lengthy pricing conversations until well along in the sales cycle. This is after you’ve learned much about the prospect, understood the pain points and identified solutions.
Value is built on these pain points and solutions. Pricing is really a value discussion. And I emphasize the word “discussion.” The buyer’s first exposure to the price conversation should not be while reading a proposal that you’ve sent over and are not present to defend. Without being in the same room, you’re unable to gauge the buyer’s reaction. Even in an RFP situation, there are ways to accomplish this.
By tossing out numbers during the early phases of the process you rob yourself of the opportunity to sell value. The result? A tumble down the stairs and a hard landing in the price cellar, where nobody wants to be.
Take it on faith…if you dare
I know that I’ve torn some assumptions asunder and ruffled some feathers with these ideas. But I’ve seen them work time and again. I urge you to try these three tactics.
(1) Start the sales cycle at a table for two—just you and your buyer.
(2) Speak early and confidently about the competition.
(3) Hold off on lengthy price conversations until you’ve established trust, uncovered motivations, linked to solutions and communicated value.
Will you win every time? No! But your odds to win will increase. And the more you use best practices, the more consistent your success. You’ll see a pattern and know you’re on the right course!