Don’t hang up

Here’s how to make knowledge calls work on the wire
JERRY STAPLETON
For SBT
{Second of two-part series}
“All my possessions for a moment of time.” So said Queen Elizabeth I on her deathbed four centuries ago. A friend of mine knows just how she felt. One of his biggest challenges is his own customers’ lack of time. “Rather than meet with me, customers seem to prefer to schedule a four-hour conference call,” says my friend, a very successful national account salesman.
It’s a complaint I’ve been hearing from salespeople a lot more frequently of late. As customers grow in their buying sophistication, they’re rapidly turning to “phone meetings” to conduct business with suppliers. Meetings once virtually always requiring face-to-face contact – Knowledge Calls, for instance, or even presentations – are more and more becoming telephone-based events.
As a consequence, salespeople are being called upon to sharpen their telephone skills. And this is just the beginning. In the very near future, when the bandwidth barriers are eliminated, videoconferencing is likely to become the platform of choice for all but the most critical customer/supplier meetings. Salespeople need to prepare. So this month, a lesson in conducting Knowledge Calls by telephone. Here are the rules:
1. The call must be positioned, not just scheduled. A Knowledge Call conducted by telephone is just as much a meeting as one conducted face to face. Never try to sneak one in while on the phone with a customer to conduct other business. And don’t try to conduct the Knowledge Call in the same phone call in which you are requesting and positioning the Knowledge Call. Try to schedule it as a separate telephone meeting. If there are more than two days between the time you schedule the call and the Knowledge Call itself, confirm via e-mail, fax or voice mail. When you confirm, restate briefly the positioning message you used when you requested the call.
2. Warm-up the phone call as you usually would a face-to-face meeting. When you make your telephone Knowledge Call, don’t jump right into your questions or even your initial positioning of the call. Instead, take an appropriate amount of time – how much will vary with each customer – to break the ice.
3. Clearly restate your Knowledge Call positioning. You must move smoothly from small talk into restating the call’s purpose. (Watch out, however: the contact might start right into sharing information about his company before you have a chance to properly position the meeting. Don’t run with it. Even if you must interrupt the person to do so, take the time to clarify and restate your Knowledge Call positioning message.) Then proceed with easier questions, including asking the contact to tell you a little bit more about him- or herself and how long he or she has been with the company.
4. Ask the contact to help fill in the blanks on your organizational chart. Don’t ask, “So whom do you report to?” That question often puts a contact on the defensive; he tends to assume you plan to call his boss next. Instead, try this approach: Explain that you have a sheet of paper in front of you. “I have two names on it in boxes,” you continue. “One has your name and title, and the other has …” – here you insert the company president’s name. “Perhaps you could help me fill in the blanks on the organizational structure so that we have a more complete picture of what your company looks like.” Spend some time on this question. Your goal isn’t merely to get a picture of the formal organizational chart; you want to build profiles of the key players: how long they’ve been there, who are the true power players, and the like.
5. Move in to a discussion about the customer’s business. Regular readers of this column will understand that you must go beyond the obvious “business issues” that relate directly to your products. To be a true Business Resource, and not just a Vendor or Problem-Solver, your questions must focus first and always on the customer’s business issues in the deepest and broadest sense – the business as seen through the customer’s eyes, not your own.
6. Only then, zero in on issues related to the fit for your solution and your company. For most salespeople, this will be the easiest step: You’re asking questions on topics that are more familiar and comfortable for you and should also be equally familiar and comfortable for the customer. But by first spending time in true homework mode on the customer’s bigger business issues, you will clearly separate yourself from the Vendor/Problem Solver, and give yourself a context into which you can better place your solution.
7. Close on a next step. Unless it becomes clear during the call that this contact is a gatekeeper, you should always close on a very specific plan of action. The next step could be to conduct additional Knowledge Calls with other contacts; to invite the contact and others from the customer company – especially its management team – to your offices for a Business Presentation; or any of a number of steps in between. If the contact is a gatekeeper, close the discussion as you would with a gatekeeper in a face-to-face Knowledge Call: say thank you, mention that you’ll be in touch, and keep your next steps to yourself – so that you don’t give the gatekeeper an opportunity to tell you not to do something.
Phone meetings – and soon videoconferencing – are replacing face-to-face meetings for much customer/supplier communication. To get a jump on your competition, don’t just be a Business Resource in person; become one over the telephone as well.
Jerry Stapleton is president of the IBS Group based in Brookfield. He can be reached directly at 414-784-0812. For a copy of the IBS white paper, “From Vendor to Business Resource”, fax your request on letterhead to 414-784-0841.

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