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“Who’s the decision maker?”  The meeting had barely started, but our newly-hired sales rep had already launched into his script.  He said that phrase.  Verbatim.  To a prospect.  I cringed and sunk in my seat.  After an evasive answer by the prospect, the rep hit him with a follow-up.  The second question on his notepad:  “have you approved a budget for this project?”  I was mortified.  It almost didn’t matter what the guy on the other side of the table wanted to talk about.  Our intrepid rep was going to get through his checklist and then figure out of he had something he could report as a “qualified opportunity” during the next sales pipeline review.

via masochismtango on flickr

Photo via masochismtango on flickr

Someone had clearly given him a sales book. I’m sure it was one of the “classics” with the process he needed to go through to qualify a prospect.  Somehow he got the impression that’s all he was supposed to do.  Why mess around with small talk?  He got right to the point the same way a drunk guy throws one liners at a pretty girl at the bar.  And just like the guy at the bar, the response wasn’t favorable.

I look back on that experience and I think it would have been funny if the buyer had answered his first question sarcastically:  “oh, you want to meet with the decision maker?  Well, that’s not me. I’m just a lowly plebe sent out here to run interference for the mucky mucks who don’t have the time to meet with you.   This is just a waste of your time and mine but I hope you’re still willing to buy lunch.”

The cliche is that sales people are coin-operated.  They’re jukeboxes that play a song about whatever product they’re selling.   To be fair, there are some companies that still teach script-based selling.  For a novice, a carefully crafted list of things to recite depending on the buyers’ questions may work for cold calling or simple products. I doesn’t work, however, for a complex, consultative sale.

There are key questions you need to get answered during a sales call.  And figuring out the decision maker and budget are two of most important things to understand.  But these sales management phrases are for internal reporting, not external conversations.

As a sales person, you need to arrive prepared with a lot of background information about the company, the person you’re meeting with, and the competitive or business pressures they’re likely facing.  Put yourself in their shoes — even before you sit down at the table with them.

If you discover that the person we’re meeting with isn’t the one who will green-light the project (aka the decision maker), your objective should be to gather as much contextual information as possible and build an internal proponent along the way.  In Dan Pink’s book To Sell is Human, he devotes a whole chapter to improvisational techniques.  Rather than working with a script, he points out how important it is to listen for “offers” — words that you can use to guide the conversation.   As a rep your role is to build on what the other person is saying.  Let them lead the conversation but make sure you learn the information you need to properly assess the stage and probability of the deal. Please, please, please don’t ever use terms like “decision maker” and “pain point” on a sales call.  Those are terms used by managers looking at pipelines, probabilities, funnels and forecasts.   The pipeline is internal tool for management.  When you’re in the field, you’re building a rapport through conversation.  Your job is to sell.  And the best way to sell is to be human.