Welcome to this module on call management where our learning objective is to go over some of the basic hygiene of running a high-quality sales conversation with a customer or a prospect.
My name is Kevin Hoffberg. I am a venture partner with Ulu ventures, a seed stage venture capital company based in Palo Alto. Before joining Ulu, I spent something like 40 years in and around sales and marketing management and leadership as a consultant and as a practitioner. During a big part of my career, more than 20 years, I was the founder and leader of a number of different sales training companies. The content we’re going to talk about today comes from that background of practice.
The first topic is the idea of setting objectives for your sales call. This should seem intuitively obvious, but not everybody does this.
I like the idea of setting three objectives with the notion that we have kind of a low, base and high expectation. Or to state it another way, what’s our best-case scenario that we walk away with? What would be the least we would settle for? In other words, we would fight to get that. And there would be something sort of in the middle.
So, three possible call objectives, which is the reason why we’re having this next sales call.
When we talk about our call objective, and we’ll talk about this again at the end of this module on when we get to a close, the key we’re focused on is the idea that the customer or prospect is making a commitment of their resources to us.
In other words, they’re agreeing to allocate their time or their people’s time or some other resource to advance the thing that we’ve been talking about.
Or to stay at yet another way, if at the end of the sales conversation, the agreements are that you’re going to do all the work, you’re going to send them something, you’re going to follow up at some undetermined later date, anything like that, you have not achieved him, even what I would describe as a minimum sales objective.
So minimal objectives would be things like a, an agreed upon meeting and agreed upon date with agreed upon participants better still that’s being hosted by the clients. So they’re on the hook to manage the call. Other things could be a needs analysis, for example, where the customer or prospect is giving you access and sponsorship to other people in the organization to achieve a specific objective.
It could be a demo would be acceptable as long as they’ve agreed to be there and even better have somebody else in the call.
And obviously a top line objective would be a signature on some type of binding document, a memo of understanding, a letter of intent, a contract, anything like that.
Obviously, there are some nuances. If you’re selling in person or if you’re doing this online, but I would summarize this point by saying, you want to have a clear picture, particularly if you’re selling with somebody else about what are you trying to accomplish.
What’s the most you can hope for? What’s the least you’ll settle for? What would be something in between?
The second thing you want to think about as you prepare for a call is who’s going to play what roles within the call.
Now, if you’re selling by yourself as, as obviously easy: You’re going to play all of the roles. It gets more interesting if you’re going to be selling as a team.
Broadly there are four roles.
Somebody is going to (1) open the call, somebody is going to (2) close the call, somebody going to (3) manage the call and somebody is going to play the role of (4) subject matter expert.
Some rules about this.
So, when we talk about who’s going to open the call, this is literally the person who’s going to speak first and by implication is going to establish sort of the reasons for the call, establish an agenda, and create introductions.
The person who’s going to close the call is literally the person who’s going to speak last. My general rule of thumb is that the same person should open and close the call with one exception. And that exception is if you’re explicitly going to be handing off the ownership of the relationship to somebody else at the conclusion of the call, in which case, perhaps I opened the call and throughout the call, as we translate or transfer the relationship equity to somebody else, that person closes the call and identifies what the next steps are.
So opening and closing the call are important roles. We want to agree on what that is and when the person who’s going to close the call goes into the close, everybody is now done speaking. Even if they have something else to say.
To the concept of call management, my advice would be whoever opens the call should manage the call. And by that, I mean specifically bringing other team members into the call. So, this gets to the subject of the other roles, the subject matter experts. Again, this will be somewhat dependent on how many people are on the call. If you just it’s you and one other, it should be easy. If there are many people you want to get agreement, in advance, on who’s going to speak to what issues or who’s going to ask the questions about what issues and get clarity on those things.
Within the context of the call you’re going to have some differences, whether you’re selling in person or whether you’re selling remotely
If you’re selling in person, the rule is that whoever is speaking or asking questions is facing the clients or clients and whoever else is on the team should be oriented towards the person who is speaking. So in other words, not competing for the visual attention of the other of the customers and prospects. So the idea is, if I am leading, if I’m speaking, if I’m the one asking questions, the rest of the team should in general be oriented towards me if I’m doing this remotely.
If we’re using Zoom or Google Hangouts or something like that, we have lots of other mechanisms by which we can do these handoffs and direct attention. So rather than having you look at me, and so you’ll get a clear signal when it’s time for me to pass the call to you, we can use the chat function within the application, or we can be offline so that I can now signal to you that it’s your turn to talk next.
So finally, and again, we want to agree on who’s opening and closing the call by extension who is managing the call and what are the roles of the other people are playing and then have clear handoffs when it’s somebody else’s term to either ask questions or to speak.
Good sales calls have agendas.
A normal practice might be that agenda is time-bound or through time. So, you know, number one is introductions. Item two could be a company overview, so on and so forth.
I don’t like that kind of agenda. I prefer an agenda I call the Agenda Buffet where you identify going into the call three to five meaty, chewy topics. These should be topics that you either have a good hypothesis will be interesting to their customer or prospect by virtue of industry research or what you know about the customer.
Or you’re beyond a hypothesis because this is a second or third call, and you actually know that they’re interested in these things.
So, rather than being time bound, they should be “subject bound” and they should be oriented towards, pains and needs that you know the customer has. So, if you’re selling something that has to do with the future of work or learning and development, one of the topics could be the future of skills. Another one could be how to think about using online learning. Another could be best practices in creating team member engagement. Another one could be the right way to think about analytics. Anything like that. So, make them provocative. Make them interesting. Think about them almost as book titles and three to five, I think is about the right number.
If I’m in person, I want to put this on a piece of paper and literally slide this across the table. If I’m doing this remotely via zoom or something like that, I put this agenda up and after I’ve given the customer or prospect a minute or so to look at the topics, my first question to the customer or prospect and is, “Where would you like to start?”
In other words, give the customer prospect the opportunity to guide the agenda. And this is an important thought throughout this.
I want to keep the customer in control.
The minute the customer nominates a topic, and it is possible he or she will say, “I don’t have a preference,” or “You pick,” or “You decide.” in which case, you know, you’ll just pick one. But making the assumption that the customer or prospect picks the topic, your next step is to do what I call a connector.
So, a connector is a conversational tool that just keeps the conversation going in the, in the direction that the customer prospect has already set off. So, a connector is something like, “Oh,” and “Which means,” “Say more about that.” “Give me some more context.” Anything like that, that just nudges.
So if the customer says, “Let’s talk about the state of engagement of my team members,” rather than you immediately responding to that with some kind of statement or exegesis, what you want to do is to say “Good topic, say more about that,” or “Really, say more about that,” or “Say why that’s interesting” or “Tell me why that’s interesting” or “Tell me why that’s important” or anything like that to get the customer to start talking.
The Best Stuff
And then your behavior should be to just continue to connect . . . say more, say more, say . . . with the idea that the best stuff isn’t ever going to be, the first stuff that the customer says.
So, way back in the day, I used to work in retail. This was when I was in college. And one of the lessons was the expensive stuff, the good stuff, was never right by the door. There was a shoplifting concern, but also you wanted to get the customer deeper into the store and more committed to the buying experience.
So, if you buy that idea and you just sort of think about the psychology of talking to strangers or really anybody, it is my experience that the most interesting things are going to be revealed after some amount of dialogue. So, within the context of the first need of, so if somebody says, “Let’s talk about this,” my counsel to you is you want to tease at that for two or three rounds. So, it’s, I believe it’s going to take you three follow-up questions before you finally get to the good stuff.
So, connect, connect, connect to get past the front door and towards the back of the store where the good stuff is. Once you feel like you’ve got an understanding of this particular need or this particular pain point before you go presenting to that, you want to put a bookmark there, say “I’ve got some ideas for you. I want to come back to that, but let me go back to the agenda. Is there another point here that we should make sure that we talk about?”
Back to my “good stuff is never at the front door,” you’ll excavate that point. My experience is that in most cases there are three to five topics that most people are willing to talk about, want to talk about and the really interesting stuff, the big needs, again, in my experience and experience with people that I’ve worked with over the years, it’s not going to be the first one.
It’s going to be something later and juicer and you’ll find that as you go. Once you have, and this gets back to roles, by the way, I should, I should not blow by this point . . . You’re going to want to be passing these questions back and forth. Other team members may want to get in on this, and this is where you want to certainly keep in touch with each other. So, if you’re doing this in person, this is where looking at each other, make sense so that you can see sort of visually if somebody has a point or a question they’d like to raise.
If you’re doing this online, you have to be a little bit more sensitive to what signals you’re seeing as you watch each other, or potentially that you’re sending each other via chat.
So, round you go, best stuff is never at the front door.
When you feel like you’ve got an architecture of needs based starting with your agenda, but equally things that they may have brought up, it’s time for you to present.
The thing I want to leave you with here is that you want to present to the needs that the customer has surfaced in that particular meeting. It’s possible to present to needs that you’ve uncovered in other meetings, but you only want to do that with permission.
Or to state this yet a different way, if you came to talk about a topic D on a list of A,B,C, and D and they never raised that as an issue, I would strongly encourage you to not speak to that topic.
In other words, don’t connect your presentation to a need that’s not there.
We want to present only to the customer’s needs.
And then finally, it’s going to come time, close your sales call.
My favored technique is to close with a question, like, “How would you like to proceed?” “What would you like to do next?”
This ties us back to where this started with the idea of you having three objectives, three things that you wanted to accomplish.
So why don’t I just go for that myself?
The underpinning of everything that we’ve done here is the idea that I want to signal along the way to the customer my acknowledgement that he or she as the buyer they’re in control. It’s their budget, their money, their resources. We’re there to help and these small gestures, like “Where would you like to start?”, “Say more about that,” and “How would you like to proceed?” are small verbal acknowledgements to the customer that they’re in control, which is where they want to be.
So, “How would you like to proceed?” . . . Best case, they’re going to suggest an outcome or they’re going to suggest the next step that you had already identified as something that you’d be interested in. And if you’ve done a good job of nominating interesting topics, asking good questions, saying interesting things, there’s a very high likelihood that you’re going to land right there.
So, if they customer says, “Let’s do this next,” and it’s what you want, you’re immediately going towards buttoning that down with specific commitments, who’s going to do what, when and how.
It’s also possible that the customer or prospect will not nominate something that was on your list. In which case you accept what he or she said.
“That’s a great idea. Can I offer a slightly different thought?”
In which case you now bring out one of the objectives or sales advances that you had identified.
So, acknowledge what the customer had offered, and then see if you can substitute something different. But always acknowledged first.
“How would you, how would you like to proceed? I could do this. That’s a great idea. Can I offer you a different idea? How about if we do this instead?”
So that’s the basic shape of how you should manage your call.
Have three objectives going in and develop your call towards the idea of achieving one of those objectives
Have clarity with your team members on their roles. Who’s going to open, who’s going to close and who’s going to manage the call. What roles will the other people play?
Use an agenda with some nice chewy topics to get the conversation going keep the customer in control by using connectors.
When it comes time to present, you’ve now got the two or three or four specific needs. Speak to those needs, the ones that they’ve suggested, not the ones that you’ve imagined.
Close with a question and away you go.
. . . . .
There’ll be more follow-on modules, but that’s it for this particular topic on Call Management. For more on our points of view on selling and really anything else you can find us at www.uluventures.com.
Thanks very much.
Note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.