I once received a phone call from an old friend who emphatically presented the merits of collaborating with him on a project his company was spearheading within our industry. For 20 minutes, he presented a binder full of reasons why it would (in his opinion) be good for me to invest my time, energy, and creativity in his initiative. 

After laying out the pitch I asked him a simple question: “Would you like to better understand my thoughts?” My old friend paused and replied, “Ummmm, sure, that would be a good idea Dan. Tell me what you are trying to accomplish these days?” We both started laughing and I proceeded to share how my coaching business had evolved since we last spoke.

 Most sales leaders do not invest enough time understanding the stated and unstated agenda of their customers, partners, and teammates. They rarely uncover hidden problems or stress points that need to be solved. My friend forgot the golden rule of sales: it’s not about you, it’s about us. A customer meeting emphasizes diagnosing the situation long before prescribing a solution.

The secret

Elevating a relationship isn’t something you do, it’s the result of everything you’ve done. Most people aren’t looking for highly differentiated solutions; they are looking for reliability, results, and trust. Yet too often we spend time in transactional discussions versus forging higher-level partnerships. What are the secrets of higher-level trusting relationships?

They start with appreciating patience and not forcing premature or unnatural conversations. People embrace relationships with someone they know, like, trust, need, want, and value. If any of these three pillars are weakened, the relationship is vulnerable to collapse.

Heart-level relationships exist when both parties have a deeper understanding of the other’s unstated interests. And this only occurs when the relationship is cemented in trust. I refer to this as the “Three Cornerstones of Trust.” People who trust others believe three things:

  • You care about my personal needs, not just your own interests.
  • You authentically want to better understand me as a person.
  • You are willing to connect me to other people or solutions to help me.

Business relationships, like any relationship, must be expansive and purposeful. Transactional relationships are not sustainable. 

How do we encourage healthier meetings with others?

Stephen Colbert’s music director and band leader, Jon Batiste, once stated: “A live performance is a collaboration with the audience; you ride the ebb and flow of the crowd’s energy.”[i]  We must set the tone for peaceful, honest discussion. The audience creates an atmosphere for the artist to accelerate, ideate, and perform – knowing full well they are rewarded for doing so. 

A top executive recently shared with me, “If you don’t care about my agenda, I won’t care about yours.” The job of a sales or service agency is to uncover hidden problems, escalating costs, and risk of failing to implement a solution. Executives want partners who solve problems and think holistically about their business. Your best allies help you uncover and neutralize threats before they take root.

Recently, I shared with a client the algorithm of preparing for a very important customer meeting. Success is driven by 10 pre planning questions:

  1. What are the customer’s highest-level priorities & growth strategies?
  2. What are the customer’s competitive threats, risks, and pressure points?
  3. What obstacles, problems or constraints will you have to overcome to strengthen the relationship?
  4. What additional knowledge, skills, resources, or capabilities will you require to achieve your strategic objectives with the customer?
  5. Why is it necessary that the customer do what you propose? What is the proof?
  6. What internal customer politics have you not fully appreciated hindering your story?    
  7. Which of your hidden assets could address the customer’s pressure points?
  8. Which influencers must you ensure attend the discussion and what is their role in the meeting?
  9. How can you neutralize your competitor’s most unique strengths?
  10. What one big idea could transform your customer relations?

Humanize the conversation 

Customer development is less about selling and more about helping others with change management. Many of us get stuck in “pitch mode” and forget to humanize the conversation. Extensive measures are always taken to avoid a loss, and it’s your job to tailor the conversation by helping others understand the risk of complacency. Necessity is the great paradigm shifter, not opportunities.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said, “a joke must focus on the structure, word choice, syntax, pacing and rhythm. It’s performance art. Comedians think in minutes.” I’ve found that an effective approach to a meaningful meeting or call follows similar tenets to what Seinfeld is describing. Often our pace can be too forward or domineering. We lose track of the rhythm and forget to let the conversation breathe. These conversational respites allow for freeform dialogue, uncovering previously unstated goals and agendas. The pause is where true gems in a conversation are unearthed.

When done well, big meetings are moments to strengthen relationships, problem solve, and better understand many of the unstated needs of another. When maximized, they are moments when your preparation is so thorough that you are free to improvise in the moment. The algorithm of planning for a big customer meeting is rooted in thoughtfully diagnosing the unstated needs of the customer. It’s not about you, it’s about us.

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