The impression you make in your first meeting is a crucial factor in the client’s decision to have any further relationship with you, so making a good impression in this meeting is critical to winning future business. That’s why it is important to understand the way in which people make simple mistakes in first meetings, which result in no further meetings.

Too many questions focused on the client’s situation and problems

Asking questions to gather information that clarify the client’s current situation and issues is obviously important at a first meeting.  However, if the discussion focuses too much on these areas, it may not be very insightful for the client.  They may feel that they are just providing you with facts which they already know, and they may see this as a waste of their time. This is because, despite the fact that you may have learned a lot, you failed to bring them any value or fresh insight.  As one executive remarked “There is limited value to me in educating a salesperson about things that I already know.”

Too much focus on ‘painful’ issues

Many people like to target the discussion on areas where the client’s business may be struggling, without realising that this can be painful and demotivating.  This has even been called “pushing the bruise” – when the bruise (issue) is pushed, the client replies, and may in time come to appreciate that there needs to be some sort of a solution to it.  They may even consider that you are that solution.  However, this may not necessarily build a long-term relationship between the two of you.  What happens when you call next time? Do they remember the pain, the cure or something else?  Will they want to engage in another conversation that makes them feel more pain?

Too narrow and focused on a single solution

Often salespeople and advisors focus questions around their area of knowledge, or their own services and products. This has many drawbacks.  Opportunities to help more broadly are often missed; they are seen to offer only a few limited options; and all too often, the client feels manoeuvred down a narrow path to an unwanted end – often for the benefit of the advisor, not themselves.

Too linear and prescriptive.  Not flexible enough

Business people don’t appreciate meeting with pushy, self-orientated advisors and salespeople. This is particularly true when faced with less experienced salespeople who ask questions using a pre-programmed ‘linear’ approach.  Something along the lines of…determine the situation…identify problems….understand their likely implications…and then push to a close with an agreed solution or sale.  This may have worked in the past. It no longer works in today’s dynamic, complex commercial environment.

As long ago as 2006, Neil Rackham, acknowledged originator of consultative selling and author of the book SPIN Selling wrote:

“For some years I’ve felt that classic selling skills models, including many that I have created, rely too heavily on selling solutions to problems. 

Today, the most dynamic growth opportunities come from divergent offerings.  Salespeople following problem-based models often fail to uncover opportunities until very late in the call – if at all. 

What is needed is an approach that encourages discussion of opportunities much earlier in the sales process.”

The world is not linear; our thoughts bounce around; questions need to bounce too – especially if they are to diverge instead of converge.

So what kind of questioning approach is more suitable for today’s complex market?

Advisors and salespeople should aim to engage clients in discussions that, from the start, add insight and value – for the client.  Conversations should address not only the current situation and issues, but increasingly focus on future opportunities.  Through discussing broader topics, advisors uncover value previously hidden from the client, who then sees a real benefit in continuing the dialogue. This ultimately builds trust between the client and advisor and a stronger long-term relationship.

This approach is covered extensively in Smarter Selling (2007) by David Lambert and Keith Dugdale, which introduced a new questioning framework called SHAPE.  As the name implies, SHAPE is not about narrowing a conversation towards a specific solution; it is about helping clients shape their future.  Where do they want to get to, and how will they get there?

The aim of the advisor is to ask the client questions which help them think through their situation and identify opportunities and hidden value, while assisting them in achieving their longer term goals.  The client enjoys the experience and looks to the advisor for further guidance; trust and loyalty grows; the cost and time to win work reduces; revenue and profits increase; and job satisfaction rockets!  Not surprisingly, SHAPE has been adopted by many leading companies around the world.

To find out more about SHAPE or Smarter Selling techniques designed to build trust and longer term business relationships with your clients, subscribe now to receive the latest insights and updates. delivers business relationship and sales skills training to executives, professionals and sales teams around the world, helping build business trust.

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