At the beginning of every sales call your prospect is making two critical buying decisions. The first decision is about the salesperson. Behavioral research states that initial impressions are created within the first 20 seconds of meeting someone. So it is critical to differentiate oneself and one’s offering in the initial phase of a meeting. The second buying decision that they make is about their willingness to share meaningful information. In today’s selling environment, the only real value a salesperson has is their ability to get valuable and sensitive information, not give it.
Since most prospects are accustomed to salespeople giving out information, salespeople have to make their prospects initially very comfortable if they want to reverse this trend and change the flow of information.
In order to effectively articulate and execute this new selling strategy, one needs to design an initial shared agenda as to the ground rules, expectations and intended outcome of one’s sales call. It is imperative that salespeople alert the prospect early on that this sales call will look, feel and be totally different than what they normally expect from a traditional sales call. The initial shared agenda accomplishes this by creating the rules of engagement between the seller and the prospect before they head into the formal sales interaction. If one doesn’t proactively discuss the rules of engagement, neither will the prospect. Unfortunately the prospect will default to their unwritten rules resulting in the salesperson being put at a severe disadvantage.
Most salespeople relinquish control unwittingly and they allow the prospect to have total control. They believe that since the prospect granted the appointment, it is an open invitation to sell. And since they are obviously interested they might as well skip the “boring” parts (prospects problems) and go straight into the exciting parts (features and benefits).
Salespeople generally carry a heavy burden when they initially engage prospects. There is an inherent mutual suspicion and distrust between the two parties. Salespeople tend to have a hidden agenda (sell at all costs) and when it is exposed the prospect is immediately on guard. Prospects are nobody’s fool. But unwittingly and unconsciously we treat them as if they were, and to defend themselves against us they return the favor. It causes a vicious cycle of no one wanting or willing to proactively do something about it.
Salespeople must demonstrate first that they are willing to make an investment in the relationship. They must put some skin into the game. Unfortunately most salespeople misinterpret this and believe if they make the first move with their information and expertise, it will carry the day in establishing trust and authority. Too many salespeople are focused on creating a position of authority and expertise instead of a position of trust
The way you make an initial investment in a relationship, when building trust, is by taking measured risks. The two biggest risks in sales are ceding control and making one’s self purposefully vulnerable. You have to be willing to make a gesture of good will and good faith and be vulnerable in order for your prospect to feel comfortable and safe to make themselves vulnerable by opening up and sharing sensitive information. It is the rule of psychological reciprocity. You give to get. You give up something to get something. You temporarily suspend your belief that you are the definitive answer. It is comparable version of the Golden Rule “Do unto others, as they would do unto you”. How you are perceived and trusted will be in direct proportion to how trustworthy and authentic you are.
At all costs you want to avoid being perceived as a stereotypical product-centric and egocentric salesperson. By making a gesture of goodwill, you can begin to cross over the artificial boundaries that face both salespeople and prospects. You can accomplish this strategy effectively by utilizing the initial shared agenda: “I’m not sure if we can help you specifically, or if what we have for you is a good fit for your company. Let’s explore the pros and cons of you changing vendors and at the end of our meeting today, I’m confident you’ll have a fairly good idea as to whether or not it will make sense for us to talk any further. And for whatever reason if you decide we aren’t a good fit, feel free to tell me and I’ll graciously get out of your way.”
For most salespeople, giving up control and putting themselves in a vulnerable position is a huge leap of faith, especially for the faint of heart. It requires not only trusting others but also trusting ourselves. However, salespeople tend to love the false guarantee and allure of the false hope of being in control, which usually translates to controlling the flow of information, being overly optimistic and partial, blueskying it, demonstrating dogged determination, and not honoring their prospect’s independence to make choices with free will. By ceding control first we hope to inspire and nurture the prospect to follow suit. Prospects tend to not feel a need to be defensive as long as we appear defenseless. They tend to attack when they perceive us as attacking. And the way we attack is with our one-sided sales rhetoric coupled with our unflagging enthusiasm. So we need to project an unbiased common purpose and a common ground. Prospects are more forthcoming when they perceive a common purpose. When they perceive an inequality in position, they feel manipulated and tend to close up.
The initial shared agenda takes the high road and sends a message that this sales call is being run for the mutual benefit of both parties. However, most salespeople try to control the prospect and the harder they try, the more the prospect will send the message back that they cannot be controlled. And the salesperson feels powerless and then they try even harder.
The reason this meeting protocol is important is because we are going to dramatically change the flow of information. All the focus will be on the information the prospect has, not the information the salesperson has. Prospects will need to be slowly romanced in order for them to feel safe and comfortable sharing sensitive information, especially since we are going to mine and dig deeply for hidden problems, unresolved issues and all the corresponding denial that usually accompanies emotionally charged issues. Salespeople must earn the right to ask tough and potentially intrusive questions. An earnest, forthright gesture of goodwill helps set the stage for sharing and trusting.
Salespeople who proactively take charge and control the experiences of their prospects make their prospect’s future more predictable and manageable. The irony is the more you cede control the more you are in control. This relieves some of the pressure that all prospects feel in a sales call: when are they going to give me information, when are they going to try to close me, will they hound me indefinitely if I tell them honestly I am not interested, and, should I be on guard if they are so enthusiastic and hell-bent on being friends.
As you change your frame of reference and transcend your immediate needs and agenda you begin to empower your prospect. When you start with a clean slate, no predetermined outcome and no expectations, you create a favorable environment to find the truth. Anything else predetermines your agenda from start to finish and immediately puts the prospect into “buyer beware” mode.
The initial shared agenda represents the ultimate in the language of trust. This is where authentic selling starts. When you really grasp and embrace this sales strategy, it allows you to quickly and easily learn how to become a neutral change agent. The change agent concept contains within it the seeds of an entirely different and dynamic way to sell.
For those salespeople who don’t have the gift of creating instant rapport and ease with their prospects this is a great substitute. Recent studies show that many prospects are put off by unsolicited chitchat as a way to establish rapport. Roughly 75% of prospects find it negative and 25% found it neutral; certainly not a ringing endorsement for the chatty at heart.
As you get comfortable with the initial shared agenda, you will find that you will do very little in the sales cycle until you know what happens next and you will find fewer meetings ending inconclusively and indecisively.
One more final word before we tackle the initial shared agenda. Learning to master this strategy will usually take some creative license. It will require a lot of sincerity and authenticity. So in the meantime, don’t be afraid to fake it before you make it. Sincerity is the key: if you can fake that, you have got it made.
The following is a detailed example of an initial shared agenda:
“Jim, thanks for inviting me in today. By the way, how are you on time? Did you have an agenda or any specific questions you wanted to ask before we get started? Is it okay to take notes? We have worked with many companies like yours in the software industry. However, we always take a very objective and open perspective that we aren’t sure if we can help you specifically, or if what we have is right for you at this time. If it would be okay, I’d like to ask you some questions to learn a little more about your company and where you want to take your business in the future. You will probably have some questions to ask of me about our company and our capabilities and I welcome that. And with your permission, at the end of the meeting we can decide if there is any reason for us to get together again in the future. And by the way, if you decide we aren’t a good fit, would you be comfortable in telling me so, so that I don’t further waste your time?
“In preparing for this meeting, I went to your website to learn more about your company and its background. I learned that you are a leader in your field and your products are innovative and cutting edge. What I’d like to learn more about today is, what are your most important critical success factors in relationship to sales that you are working on in the next 6 to 12 months. and what if anything are the biggest hurdles in achieving them?”
By establishing an initial shared agenda with your prospect, you are developing a clear, concise, enforceable and understandable set of ground rules. The benefit of setting these rules of engagement is it differentiates you immediately and it reminds you that you will have to ask a lot of questions instead of spewing product information. It also begins to build trust as you start to lower the walls of resistance.
The initial shared agenda is a gesture of compromise so that you can ultimately achieve equal business status and a peer-to-peer relationship with your prospect. Because it creates initial strong boundaries, interaction between prospect and salesperson is enhanced. It is a simple process where the salesperson and the prospect openly discuss in a forthright and professional manner what is needed on both sides and then proceed to negotiate and openly discuss on that basis. This shared mutual trust chips away at the typical perception of a salesperson who is self-serving and self-centered. Ultimately, salespeople carry the brunt of an adversarial process that most of their fellow salespeople promote. It is not unusual for salespeople to fear the initial shared agenda because they fear giving their authority and power away. Fortunately, they have nothing to fear because they never had it in the first place.
Specifically, here is what an initial shared agenda accomplishes each step along the way:
1) An initial shared agenda sets the time parameters for the meeting
You save your prospect’s time by having a clear understanding as to how much time they have allowed for the meeting. Respect for their time reassures the prospect that you also respect your own time and therefore will not waste theirs. By allowing the prospect to set the time parameters, you reinforce their value and input. In the rare case where the allotted time is not enough, reschedule or simply ask, “Let’s go for 15 minutes and reassess to see if we want to reschedule or see if there is enough value to go beyond our 15 minutes.” If you can find their pain, they will more than likely be open to extending the meeting. Usually, when they are rushed for time, it is simply a defense mechanism against salespeople who had previously wasted their time.
2) An initial shared agenda sets up the purpose for the meeting
An agenda makes a meeting productive and establishes a goal and purpose for the call. You honor the prospect’s need to be heard, which is important in building a relationship on trust. You can also ask, “When you agreed to see me, what were some of the things you were hoping to accomplish as a result of this meeting?” The goal of the initial shared agenda is to create curiosity, not to interest them in your offering. Most traditional salespeople use interest-creating as their hook and they fall prey to the prospect’s system.
3) An initial shared agenda gives permission for both the prospect and the salesperson to ask questions to see if there is a good fit
Since you are paid for your questions and not for your answers, this is a critical agreement to establish. Asking thought-provoking questions to uncover pain is a critical step in building relationships. People buy from people they like, but much more importantly, people buy from people they believe understand their problems and their circumstances. Trust is built through having the expertise, patience and care to ask neutral questions that help prospects self-discover their own answers and priorities. The salesperson who uncovers, creates and defines the problem the most effectively will consistently outsell the salesperson with the best solution.
4) A strong initial shared agenda gives both the seller and the buyer the opportunity to say “no” gracefully without remorse or fear of additional pressure
Your job in sales is not to sell. Your job is to get prospects to make decisions: a “yes” or a “no”. A high percentage of a salesperson’s time is wasted chasing “no’s” that could have easily been disclosed early on by your prospect if you had just given them the choice. By making “no” an acceptable answer, you build trust and confidence with your prospect because they know you are impartial and objective. In sales, there are always two winners: the one who was awarded the deal and the one who lost early and quickly. Getting inevitable “no’s” quickly saves you time and resources. Paradoxically, the more opportunities you give a prospect a chance to say “no”, the more likely they will not exercise that choice.
5) A strong initial agreement provides that each sales call has an end result
At the conclusion of every sales call you must have a clear and concise verbal agreement as to what happens next, what those particular steps are, and the corresponding timeframe. Always bring the future to the present and outline the sequence of future events. For example, you might say, “At the end of this meeting what decisions are you going to want to make?” You always want to try to eliminate conditional interest as much as possible.
6) A strong initial shared agenda places the focus on the mission critical issues facing the customer and not just the specific and immediate requirements they may have
This is very important to understand because to be an effective business consultant and to build a sound business strategy and business case, you need to look at the complete big picture to understand their goals, their mission, and their future vision. The more you keep the conversation on product needs and information, the greater the likelihood you will invite objections, unfavorable comparisons and price pressures. Understanding the vision will help you put in perspective the priority of the problem and whether it supports the greater corporate goal or direction of the company. You also gain trust and enhance your relationship because you are positioning yourself as a business resource and a business strategist instead of a product pusher.
7) Optional: The initial shared agenda allows you the courage to deal with your concerns, fears, questions and misgivings to preempt misunderstandings
A perfect example: “Jim, before we begin, one of my greatest fears is that you will throw me a piece of business to start off with and I’ll run off to fix it and it becomes just a one-time deal without any future possibility of more business. I’m not here and don’t have any interest in just transactional business. What I’d like to accomplish today is to see if we have the basis for a long-term relationship and only then if it makes sense, we can look at the possibility of starting with a small order. Are you okay with that?” Other possible situations to address:
- Your company dropped the ball on a past deal many years ago
- Your company is small or new and the prospect has a history of dealing with mature, well-known companies, or vice-versa
- Your prices are very high and if they are a price buyer, there will be likely no synergy, or vice-versa
8) The initial shared agenda allows you to demonstrate you care enough about your prospect to do your homework and research their company
Your initiative shows you are interested in learning about their business. It also sets the tone for the rest of your meeting, that you place a high value on discovering what is important to them as opposed to placing all the focus on your company and your solutions.
The following are options for verbiage to use in the initial shared agenda:
Stage 1 (Subtle Doubt)
- “I’m not sure if we are a good fit for you until I learn more about your situation.”
- “We usually take a fairly open position that we aren’t right for everyone.”
- “I don’t want to make assumptions on how I can or can’t help you.”
- “You probably are wondering who we are, what we specifically have to offer you, and whether or not it will be of interest to you.”
Stage 2 (Reason for Meeting)
- “What were you hoping we could possibly help you with?”
- “You obviously get a lot of companies wanting to meet you. What made you interested in inviting me to meet you today?”
- “What were you hoping to accomplish in our meeting today so that you’ll know that your time was well spent?”
- “If you give me a moment, I’d like to suggest a framework in which we might run our meeting today.”
- “I thought it would be useful to talk about… How’s that for a starting point?”
Stage 3 (Questions)
- “Would it be okay to ask you some questions and then we can focus on what is important to you? You obviously have a vantage point on this that I’m not privy to.”
- “Let’s ask one another some questions to learn more about one another’s business. Then we can explore the possibilities of doing business together.”
- “With your permission, I’d like to ask you some questions and I’d like you to feel free to ask me anything that you’d like to know about us that would help you decide for yourself if we can help you or not.”
Stage 4 (Getting Closure)
- “I appreciate your insights today and I learned a lot. For instance, I didn’t know how advanced your systems were and I also learned… I see a strong fit between our companies. What would you like to see happen next?”
- “At the end of our meeting, will you be wanting to make a final decision, one way or another, as to where we proceed or not? Or will you need another meeting to do that?”
In Stephen Covey’s book, The Speed of Trust, he outlines the entire key elements in establishing relationships based on trust. The following all relate directly towards the goals of the initial shared agenda:
- Straight talk
- Demonstrate respect
- Create transparency
- Confront reality
- Right wrongs
- Practice accountability
- Listen first
- Extend trust
The initial shared agenda is a mutual pact for the intent of, and the hope for, full and open disclosure. It is the same as saying, I’m willing to show you my cards first and be a straight shooter if you are also. The initial shared agenda allows prospects to deal with their fear of the unknown. It is an agreement of consent and understanding and a test for alignment. Its goal is to get prospects to change their ego state and to help them manage their expectations as to how this call will look, feel and sound different than what they are generally accustomed to. It gives them the space to feel comfortable and to feel in control of their time and their information.
Because salespeople carry a heavy burden of a perceived conflict of interest, salespeople must do everything possible to demonstrate to their prospects that they have their best interests at heart. The initial shared agenda represents a strong believability factor during the crucial start of a sales call. Salespeople have to face head-on the believability divide every time they meet a new prospect and seek a common ground.
The initial shared agenda is accessible, humble, modest, subtle, understated, non-threatening, vulnerable, natural, unpretentious, open, liberating, free of opinion and judgment, agenda free, free of expectation, and powerful.
The initial shared agenda is an excellent sales strategy to build rapport and trust and to chip away at the prospect’s initial apprehensions and inherent mistrust of salespeople and the stereotypical negative perceptions that follow it. Unless you come to the table with incredible leadership qualities and a magnanimous and alluring personality, you’ll need to have a sales tactic that can make up for the missing element that only the most gifted salespeople have. The initial shared agenda works well when you believe in your heart that the best salesperson at the selling interaction is the prospect. You believe it is your job to get them to sell themselves first and foremost and then to sell you as to why they would want to change. All the pressure is taken off your shoulders and the burden of proof now lies with the prospect. This selling strategy can only be accomplished when you take a non-selling posture and allow your prospect the independence to come to their own conclusions without your interference and biased influence. Your value is now measured in your ability to educate your prospect on their problem and its consequences as opposed to over-educating them on your solutions. When you set the initial rules of engagement you condition your prospect to be an active participant in defining their problems, answering their own objections and closing themselves as to whether they want to change or not.