12 common business development mistakes you can't afford to make

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By Andrew Sobel and Olivier Jacob

The other day, a client called me for advice about a major sale he was involved in. His company was making its final presentation within the week. I did my best, but the problem was that he and his team had made significant mistakes much earlier in the business development process. It was now too late to rectify them. Their position was weak. They were lost in an unfamiliar city because they had made several wrong turns earlier in the journey.

I see very basic but often fatal mistakes made throughout the sales process, often by very sophisticated professionals. I, for one, have made more of them than they have in my career. Here are the 12 most common mistakes:

1. Do not prepare

You'd be surprised how many client executives have complained to me about unprepared people coming to present their services. My father always told me, "There is no substitute for a true lack of preparation. Well, that's true. Research the person you are meeting with and their business. Set the agenda ahead of time - find out if there is anything in particular they are interested in. Make sure you know who will actually be attending your meeting. Don't go in and ask "So, tell me about your company" (yes, really, people use this as an introduction...it's probably the last time they'll see the prospect...)

2. Do not enter as a peer

Many potential engagements are lost within the first ten seconds because the presumed counselor or service provider does not enter and act as a peer. Acting like a peer has a mental and physical side. Mentally, you have to believe that you belong in that executive's office. You must be fully convinced that you have something very valuable to offer him or her. Physically, you have to stand tall and show confidence. But you must also show that you are humble through your tone and curiosity.

3. Trying to do too much at the first meeting

In a very first meeting, you should focus on a limited number of objectives. You should focus on:

  • Establishing a relationship and trust
  • Evidence of (indirectly, through questions and examples from clients) credibility
  • Understanding the client's most pressing issues and program
  • Generate enough interest in your client to be invited to a second interview

In most initial meetings, you are NOT trying to "make sure you mentioned products X, Y and Z" or "discuss our recently opened office in Mexico". You are NOT trying to get a commitment to a project or transaction. You are NOT trying to simultaneously talk in detail about the project you are doing at a lower level of the organization while making a case for reorganizing the entire company. And so on, you get the idea. Don't overload this first conversation or it will fall to the bottom very quickly.

4. Precipitate the sale

As Diana Ross and the Supremes sang, "You can't hurry love." If you try to rush the sale, you will come across as "salesy" and unsophisticated. Many sales can take place in one meeting; others take ten meetings. But either way, you need to get the foundation in place. Is there a pressing problem and have you understood it 360 degrees? Have you established confidence in your ability to solve the problem with a proven approach? Are internal stakeholders aligned? Etc. For any type of sophisticated and complex product or service, if there is no trust relationship, there is no sale. Real professionals actively manage the sales process, always pushing it, cleverly, to the next step. But they are patient. As Abraham Lincoln said, "If I have six hours to chop down a tree, I spend four hours sharpening my axe.

Everyone talks about "closing the sale," but it will never happen if you haven't done a thorough and hard work in the days and weeks leading up to the closing.

5. Focus on your solutions, not the customer's needs

When you have the mindset of an expert for hire, you focus on your methodology or solution and its effectiveness for the client. In contrast, when you have the mindset of a consultant, you focus on developing a deep and comprehensive understanding of the client and their needs. Don't be a product salesperson. Carefully explore your client's agenda, delve into their frustrations and aspirations. When you come up with your wonderful solution - your "one-size-fits-all approach" - that's a turn-off. First show that you really understand what the client is looking for. Then, and only then, illustrate how what you do could help them meet their needs.

6. Use of PowerPoint or other written materials

Why would you make a presentation or brochure at an initial meeting? You have no idea what the client is interested in at this point, or at least, even if you have an idea, you haven't explored it enough to develop a PowerPoint presentation on it. In the first meeting, you want to have a conversation, not show the other person everything you know. You can't have a good conversation when your prospect is reading slides in front of you. You can bring an "end note" with identifying information and customer examples, but you must leave it with them when you leave. In a second or third meeting, a presentation might be more appropriate.

7. Not meeting the decision-maker-buyer

Question: How can you sell something to someone you have never met? Answer: With great difficulty. Don't waste your time and invest in a lengthy business development process if you can't meet or talk to the real decision maker, the so-called "economic buyer". Everyone and their brother will try to prevent you from meeting the executive sponsor of the program or issue in question. Your job is to stand up and explain why you need to talk to this executive in order to fully understand the problem and develop a meaningful proposal.

8. Ignore the emotional and political aspects of selling

No one buys for purely rational reasons. Remember the old adage: facts tell, emotions sell. Every major sale has emotional (or personal) dimensions as well as political ones. How will your project or engagement affect key executives? Who does it threaten? Which stakeholders will be involved in the decision, and what is the rational and personal agenda of each? How will the different stakeholders be affected by the client's organization? Ignore the emotional and political dimensions, and you are handicapping yourself dramatically.

9. Not asking good questions

Everyone knows that you have to ask really good questions. I find that most professionals fall into two groups: those who talk non-stop and don't ask any questions at all, and those who ask mediocre questions. Very few people ask really challenging and interesting questions. Here's an example of what I mean: 

The problem: The client wants to reorganize around customer segments rather than geography.

  • Boring question: what is your timetable for the implementation of the new organization?
  • Better question: how would you describe the distinct needs and goals of each of the three segments you have identified (and how will you organize internally to meet those needs?) 
  • Boring question: Can you tell me about the segments you want to organize around?
  • Better question: What motivated you to make this change now?
  • Better question: how will key leaders in the current structure be affected by this change? And: Typically, is there resistance to a move like this / where do you think resistance to it will occur in your own organization?

10. Do not listen

When it comes to serving clients, aside from outright incompetence, there's almost nothing worse than being considered someone who "doesn't listen very well." And few distinctions are greater than "He's an excellent listener." Listening is not just about asking questions and listening. It's about showing that you really understand. Asking for clarification. Asking thoughtful follow-up questions. Affirming. Empathetic. Also, disclosing and sharing your own experiences and thoughts. It's all about making the other person feel like they are the ONLY person in your world for those 40 minutes together.

11. Play not to lose and end up bland and immemorial

Especially in a meeting with an executive, you can't play to make sure you don't lose. You have to play to win, or you lose. If you take a conservative, "don't offend anyone and don't upset the established order" approach, you will seem bland and immemorial. And then you'll be... forgotten. You must come in and clearly stand for something. You should have an incisive point of view about the prospect's industry or function. You should be prepared to gently challenge them and their definition of the problem and solution. Be bold, not bland.

12. Not adding enough value to request a second meeting

If your prospect isn't getting value from the first meeting, why would they want to meet with you again? In the past, executives could take the time to get to know you if they thought you might have something to offer. But today's harried customers don't have that luxury. They have to think, "That was a useful conversation. This person seems to know his stuff. Our discussion helped refine my understanding of my problems and the possible solutions that exist. I feel like this is someone I can trust and have a relationship with. Add value through examples of what other clients have done, sharing market and competitive information, explaining best practices that may be helpful for the challenges the client has mentioned to you, asking challenging questions, questioning their very definition of the problem, and so on.

Now take the "No" out of every sentence and you'll know exactly what to do in your next business development conversation. Go for it.

About the authors

Andrew Sobel is the leading authority on the strategies and skills needed to develop clients for life. He is the world's most published author on the subject, having written eight best-selling books on customer relationships, including the international bestsellers Customers for Life and Power Matters. More than 100 leading firms, such as PwC, Citibank, UBS, Booz Allen Hamilton, Cognizant, Deloitte and many others have used his book Clients for Life to develop trusted advisor skills and increase their clients' revenues.

Olivier Jacob has decades of expertise as a coach, trainer, and conference facilitator on the topics of management and sales. Author of the book "Make your business grow" and passionate about personal effectiveness, strategy, sales, commitment and new technologies, he created Inéa Conseil in 2008 to help companies sell more and better, and managers better mobilize their employees.

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