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There is a new conversation starter in B2B selling. It is more effective than other, older conversations because it respects the client's time and creates value for the contact. The conversation starts by helping the client with an outcome that is impossible to address using a traditional approach.

In the past, there were several ways you might start a conversation with a decision-maker. These are evidence of how B2B sales has evolved, and they provide a hint to where B2B selling is heading.

Legacy Conversation Starter: Rapport and Relationship

In a legacy approach, you would start a personal conversation to connect and develop rapport on your way to a relationship. You might notice that your contact has on display a picture of their children or their diploma from their university, and you ask questions to demonstrate your interest.

This was the dominant approach for decades, as evidenced by the power of Dale Carnegie's book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carnegie was a salesperson and he knew the subject he taught. To explain the conversation starter, Carnegie said, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” Carnegie's work is based on principles, and his book is worth your time. He suggested that salespeople should be other-oriented at a time when that was uncommon.

You will never hear me suggest that relationships are not important, but because the world outside changed, this sales conversation starter is rarely as effective as it once was. First, large organizations started using RFPs (requests for proposals) to eliminate the power of relationships. Second, business became a lot busier, and so did the salesperson's contacts.

Legacy Conversation Starter: The Agenda

As busy decision-makers have more on their plates, the conversation starter has turned into an agenda for the meeting. You would share your agenda and ask the client if they needed anything else from your time together. Much of the time, this was a formality with your contact. With the agenda confirmed, you would introduce your company and your products and services before asking the client about their problem.

As the sales profession moved towards a focus on the client's business, several forces caused the relationship to grow more transactional. The best way to describe this is a line from The Godfather: "It's not personal. It's just business." As more competitors entered the marketplace, the power shifted to buyers. Recessions and other forces of uncertainty caused decision-makers to change their priorities. In 2001, the dot-com bubble increased the CFO’s power and a company’s purchasing functions. In 2008, the Great Recession reshaped what companies needed. And we now find ourselves in a place where another approach is necessary.

New Conversation Starter: The Briefing

Our current environment is perhaps the most uncertain any of us have ever experienced. There is a greater and growing uncertainty that pervades all aspects of our lives. You find uncertainty in our politics, in the technologies that disrupt all parts of our society, and in the challenges shaping our economy. When you are uncertain, it is difficult to act. Your fear is that by acting, you may make things worse. When uncertainty promises negative consequences, you seek certainty.

The new conversation starter in sales is something like a briefing. The point of the briefing is to explain the forces that are harming your prospective client—or soon will be. Helping the contact to understand and make sense of what's going on outside their windows allows the client to press forward. This objective view of the environment provides distance and can make these forces less threatening.

There are several reasons this approach to starting a new conversation scores well with buyers. First, there is no wasted time. You may not realize it, but when you are in B2B sales, you are a business advisor. Businesspeople build rapport by talking about business. Second, the briefing positions you as an expert and authority, while also creating value for the contacts receiving your insights and perspective. For clients, a briefing is a lean-forward conversation, as opposed to the legacy approach that causes them to lean back.

The Importance of Starting the Right Conversation

Recently, no fewer than five sales managers have told me their sales teams can't convert a first conversation into a second conversation. One of the most significant factors in a salesperson’s ability to get a second meeting is how they start the conversation. An approach that prioritizes a relationship over creating value for the contact is doomed to fail. So is a conversation that provides the contact a history lesson on the salesperson's company and their products.

The reason a contact refuses a second meeting is because the salesperson didn't create value in the first one. When a salesperson is not positioned as an expert and authority—when they are not One-Up—they are not useful as a potential partner. Those who underestimate how much has changed and the impact it has on B2B sales will struggle.

The evolution of sales isn't being driven by sales. Instead, it occurs as our industry adapts to the environment and what decision-makers and their teams need from salespeople and their companies. When you have no control over the environment or your prospective clients, you must work on what is within your control. You can control your approach, starting with how you open a first meeting. You can immediately create value for your client by educating them about their decision and providing certainty that they can improve their results.

Tags:
Sales 2022
Post by Anthony Iannarino on October 16, 2022
Anthony Iannarino
Anthony Iannarino is a writer, an author of four books on the modern sales approach, an international speaker, and an entrepreneur. Anthony posts here daily.
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