The Rules Of Engagement

An initial agreement sets the ground rules for a successful sales call.

To effectively engage your gases and welding clients, you need to dramatically change your beliefs about your selling position and how you initiate a sales call. Stop selling and providing solutions, and play more the role of a change agent. A change agent takes a non-selling posture, the position of a neutral observer, detached from any preconceived expectations regarding the outcome. He or she is not product-centric, so all the focus is on finding and defining problems (pain) and helping the client self-discover the implications of his or her problems and motives to change.

Establish an Initial Agreement
In order to effectively articulate and execute this selling strategy, you need to design an initial agreement regarding the ground rules, expectations and intended outcomes of your sales call. The most important part of any sales engagement is the first impression. Behavioral research states that initial impressions are created within the first 20 seconds of meeting someone. That’s why it is imperative to differentiate yourself and your offering in the initial phase of your meeting.

The initial agreement sets the ground rules between the seller and prospect before heading into the sales interaction. This allows all parties to be informed and operating with a common purpose in mind. If you don’t discuss the rules, neither will the prospect; yet the prospect’s rules will prevail, and it will put you 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 (prospect’s problems) and go straight into the exciting parts (features and benefits).

The following is an example of an initial agreement:

“Jim, thanks for inviting me in today. By the way, how are you on time? Do you have an agenda or any specific questions you want to ask me before we get started? 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 me about our company and our capabilities, which I welcome. 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 Web site 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 relation 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 agreement with your client, you are developing a clear, concise, enforceable and understandable set of ground rules. The benefits of setting these rules of engagement are that you differentiate yourself immediately, and you are reminded that now you will have to ask a lot of questions, instead of spewing product information. You also begin to build trust as you start to lower the walls of resistance.

The Advantages of a
Strong Initial Agreement
  1. It allows enough time for the meeting.
  2. It establishes an agenda.
  3. It gives permission for both prospect and seller to ask questions.
  4. It gives the prospect and seller the opportunity to say “no” without remorse or additional pressure.
  5. It provides that each sales call has an end result.
  6. It places the focus on the customer’s critical issues, not just immediate requirements.
  7. It allows you to deal with your biggest concerns up front.
  8. It shows you care enough about your prospect to do your homework.

Allow for Enough Time
You honor your client’s time by having a clear understanding as to how much time they have allowed for the meeting. Respect for their time reassures the client that you also respect your own time and therefore won’t 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 isn’t enough, reschedule or simply say, “Let’s go for 15 minutes and reassess to determine if we want to reschedule or if there is enough value to go beyond our 15 minutes.” If you can find pain, the prospect more than likely will be open to extending; their original reservation may have been simply a defense mechanism against salespeople who had previously wasted their time.

Establish an Agenda
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 very important in building a relationship on trust. You also could ask, “When you agreed to see me, what were some of the things you were hoping to accomplish as a result of our meeting?” The goal of the initial agreement is to create curiosity, not interest. Most traditional salespeople use interest-creating as their hook, and then they fall prey to the prospect’s system.

Permission to Ask Questions
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 important, 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 customers discover their own answers and priorities. The salesperson who uncovers and defines the problem most effectively will consistently outsell the salesperson with the best solution.

Give the Opportunity to Say “No” Gracefully
Your job in sales isn’t to sell; your job is to get clients to make decisions: a yes or a no. A high percentage of a salesperson’s time is wasted chasing “no’s” that easily could have 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 he or she knows you are impartial and objective. In sales, there are always two winners: the one who was rewarded with the deal, and the one who lost early and quickly. Getting inevitable no’s quickly saves you time and resources. Paradoxically, the more chances you give customers to say “no,” the more likely they won’t exercise that choice.

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 in outlining 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 want to always try to eliminate conditional interest as much as possible.

Focus on Customer’s Mission Critical Issues
This is very important to understand, because to be an effective business consultant and build a sound business strategy, you need to look at the big picture in understanding their goals, their mission and their future vision. The more you keep the conversation on product needs and information, the greater the likelihood you invite objections, unfavorable comparisons and price pressures. Understanding the vision will help you put the problem in perspective and determine whether it supports the greater goal of the company. You also gain trust and enhance your relationship because you are positioning yourself as a business resource and strategist instead of a product pusher.

Deal with Your Biggest Fears and Concerns Up Front
A perfect example: “Jim, before we begin, one of my greatest fears is that you will throw me a piece of business to start, and it will become just a one-time deal without any future possibility of more business. I 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 start 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 in dealing with mature, well-known companies, or vice versa.
  • Your prices are very high and, if he or she is a price buyer, there likely will be no synergy, or vice versa.

Care Enough to Do Your Homework
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 initial agreement 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. 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 agreement 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 be accomplished only 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 overeducating them on your solutions. Setting initial rules of engagement conditions your prospect to be an active participant in defining their problems, answering their own objections, presenting the options, and determining for themselves whether or not they want to change.

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89a_farrellrichard Meet the Author
Richard P. Farrell is vice president of Selling Dynamics LLC, located in Chicago, Illinois, and on the Web at

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