Variations on the one-legged sales call: Can you control the story?

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Inbound or outbound — and lead quality — are often determined by decisions and activities long before you see your first inquiry or make your initial sales call.

It’s a classic problem, especially for residential sales, but variations exist in the ICI market. You travel some distance for a meeting with prospective clients, only to find that all the decision-makers aren’t there (or worse, no one in the room really has any authority to conclude the transaction.)

This situation, described (for residential sales) by Michael Stone as the “one-legged sales call” inevitably results in frustration and often time-wasted energy. The other person (or people) in the equation, not being in the room, build no rapport or trust with the salesperson. Worse, they have the perfect “out” to ignore the proposal or — worse — take data provided by you to shop around and even negotiate with the vendor they had preferred to do business with in the first place.

The trouble here is that you can’t just simply say “no” to all of these meetings. In the residential world, quite often there are legitimate reasons for only one person to be in the room — the other partner may be travelling, have really challenging scheduling, or simply, the second partner really wants to leave the primary decision-making and research to the first person.

In the ICI market, the research/review and decision-making for projects can be complex and the people in the room for initial meetings, although lacking final authority, may be key gatekeepers. If you offend them, you are out of the running, even if they cannot decide on their own.

Stone offers a formula for residential calls, which I think works quite effectively to separate the tire-kickers from the serious candidates. It will require a second call to finalize things, but at least you’ve shown courtesy and respect for the client’s time and you also have the background information you need for an effective conclusion. He writes:

You get a call from the nice folks, and you ask your questions. Once you’ve covered the basics of the project, you ask, “When will you and ____ have about an hour to an hour and a half to meet with (me/our representative/salesperson/owner) and review your project in its entirety?”

By asking this way, you are making it clear that if you are dealing with a couple, you expect both to be present when you or the salesperson arrives. They inform you that only one of them can make the initial appointment. The spouse might drive long-haul trucks, perhaps they’re a doctor or other service provider away from home for long hours, or maybe they’re a sales representative whose territory only gets them home on weekends. There are many legitimate reasons that make it difficult to meet with both parties.

If that’s the case, you say, “John/Mary, I understand that your spouse/significant other can’t be at the appointment with us. That’s not a problem, and I would first like to ask, do you have a Power of Attorney for your spouse/significant other?” If they do, problem solved.

If they don’t, you simply say, “Just so there is no misunderstanding….We will be glad to come out and take a look at your project, discuss it, review everything that you have in mind, but before we will do any design work, any estimating or give any price quotations for your job, we will require a second meeting with all parties to the decision at that meeting. If that is agreeable, then we would be happy to come out and discuss your project.” Then you add, “Is that fair enough?”

Now the ball is dead center in their court. You’re clearly setting the conditions under which you’ll go to their home or building and review what they want done. You’re clearly establishing that you won’t do any design work or estimating or present a price until you’ve had a second meeting with all decision makers present. Now button up and listen to their answer.

I believe that if a customer is good enough to give me a call, the least I can do is give them an hour of my time to explore if there is a possible job there.

If they accept your terms, go on the sales call. If they start asking about prices or asking for a bid, remind them what they were told on the phone. You will only do design work, estimating or give bids when all the parties to the decision are there. You can always provide them with a link to Remodeling Magazine’s Cost vs. Value report and let them look up their own job and the approximate prices listed in the report. The report gives mid-range prices for a whole bevy of projects and can be reasonably accurate.

If they aren’t willing to set an appointment under the conditions you’ve set, that’s their decision. You can softly but firmly pass on that opportunity. This should also reduce the risk of negative feedback such as a nasty post online.

Before you start a project, you’ll need a written contract signed by both parties, unless one party has a Power of Attorney. Make sure you’ve had the chance to meet with all decision makers before investing too much of your time into a project.

In the ICI field, I think the priority should be really understanding and knowing the organization for which you hope to do business. If you need to ask basic questions about decision-making hierarchies, you probably aren’t anywhere near ready to even get close to the short-list. You’ll need to do your research well before the actual initial pitch/meeting, perhaps with the help of business development researchers, but ideally because, well, you really know the organization (since that knowledge in fact is the foundation of most ICI sales.)  You can then determine how much pricing/data to share at the meeting — probably you can defer specifics, while you suggest enhancements and possible cost-savings options for the design and construction process.

The point in both of these situations is not to slam the door on situations where you can’t reach all (or any) of the decision-makers at the early stage interview/conversation process, but equally, you don’t need to spill all your beans. You can be respectful but not a sucker for abuse.

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