I believe I’m a good salesperson. I’m good at getting meetings with the right people and getting them excited, but I suffer from recurring attacks of what I call First Meeting Syndrome. My first meeting is red hot, but I struggle to get a follow-up; time passes and the deal goes cold. I’m a great door-opener, but I’m not so good at closing the deal.
Earlier this year, I pitched a partnership for Posse to the chief operating officer of a major media company. Once again, our initial meeting was excellent. I managed to score a follow-up with a few of the executive’s colleagues; again, my presentation seemed to go well, and the group seemed receptive to my ideas. But as weeks slipped by and email communication slowed, I started to worry. Had I blown another opportunity by not being able to seal the deal? Over the past year, I’ve wondered: What am I doing wrong? How come I’m so good at initial meetings but so lousy at following through? I asked mentors for advice, and I tracked folks who are killer salespeople in order to learn what their magic was at meetings.
And I discovered that I was making some fundamental mistakes. It’s always tough for a small company to close a deal with a big company. For one thing, few people have even heard of a start-up like mine, so there are no kudos awaiting the corporate executive who strikes a deal with me. Instead, there’s a high level of risk, working with a product of unknown quality. Because that deal I mentioned was a potential game changer for Posse, one I needed to make happen, I decided to try a few of the techniques I learned from my mentors. And I’m proud to report that last week we closed a partnership that will give Posse lots of exposure in the coming months.
Here are a few of the things I learned:
1. Get the other company to do the talking
I used to spend a lot of time preparing for meetings. I’d research the company, come up with a range of suggestions and try to impress them with my presentation. I’d talk for 80 percent of the meeting. One mentor suggested that I make my first meeting all about them. Rather than arriving with a fully developed proposal, spend most of the time asking about their strategy. Then describe what Posse does and try to generate partnership ideas together.
When I managed to get back in to see the media company, I asked about its objectives. To my surprise, one of the lead executives said that her performance was measured by the amount of traffic she could drive to her company’s website. It became obvious that search engine optimization was crucial.
After I mentioned that Posse collected many reviews that were relevant to pages on the media company’s platform, this executive suggested that if we fed the reviews relevant to their store pages through an A.P.I., that would improve their ranking in Google search and drive more traffic to their site. Now she was interested. This was not an idea I had considered when I delivered my first presentation to the company, but it was exactly what I needed to get an important person on board with the proposal.
2. It’s all about the person
I used to get excited about the prospect of doing a deal with a big brand. When I planned my presentation, I thought it through as though I were pitching to Visa, Coke or the like, and structured it according to my expectations of what Coke wanted to achieve. But in reality, there is no such thing as pitching to a company; I can only pitch to one or two people who happen to work for that company. I have to sell to them.
Most people who work for big corporations have two concerns in these situations: How do I make myself look good? And how do I avoid making myself look bad? They will always be wary of doing a deal with a start-up if they’re not sure it can deliver. I’ve learned to draw attention to our high-profile investors in order to borrow their halo of credibility, and I stress that I will personally lead the project to ensure it succeeds. I try to show how working with us will make the big brand seem innovative, attracting positive media coverage — and make the employees look good in the process.
3. Deal with the most senior person
Senior executives are generally more prepared to take a risk while their juniors tend to worry about making mistakes. I’ve wasted a lot of time presenting to juniors who don’t have the clout or the nerve to make something happen. In my negotiations with the media company, the deal started to falter when it was passed down to middle management. To get back on track, I had to get back to the chief operating officer and get him excited again.
4. Leave a written presentation
I’ve always presented using PowerPoint on a laptop or iPad. But the advisory group that helped run our recent round of fund-raising meetings insisted that I print and bind a copy of my presentation to leave with clients. At first, I thought this was a waste of paper, but I was surprised to discover that it worked. It is easier to visualize a product when there’s a tangible booklet to flip though. I also learned that after the meetings people would pass the presentation around to colleagues. And many of the people I meet with are in their 50s or older and may be more comfortable with paper presentations. This may change with time, but from now on, I plan to print my material and leave it behind.
5. Create time pressure
Daily deal sites like Groupon and Living Social were successful initially because of the scarcity principle, the concept that consumers want now what they fear may not be available tomorrow. The same is true if you are trying to sell some kind of deal or partnership. People are unlikely to say yes today if they think can say yes next week. As a start-up founder, I have found it hard to create a sense of scarcity. Everyone knows that my company is small and needs a partner; the executives at the big companies don’t need me. They are always in control.
But I’ve learned that without a sense of urgency I’ll never close a negotiation, so I have to create it. In the case of my recent media relationship, I had to make them want the deal, and I had to give them a deadline to make a decision. I had to say that, if the deadline passed, we would have to reallocate our limited resources to another opportunity, which was quite true.
6. Be persistent
I never used to be sure how hard to push people when following up. If I emailed a couple of times and they didn’t respond, I figured they were not interested. I didn’t want to be annoying. Then, a couple of months ago, a sales person approached me offering to sell an email marketing system for Posse. I met him over coffee and said I’d think about it. He called me the next morning and afternoon and then constantly, until I gave in. As soon as I said yes, he told me he’d be at our office that afternoon to present a welcome gift and to collect the paperwork. Of course, I wanted the gift, which turned out to be a $10 cake, and he got his paperwork signed.
This made me think: Why can’t I be more like that? After a meeting, I used to send a follow-up email, but many of the people I meet with are too busy to respond to nonurgent emails from start-ups; they hit delete and consign my missive to the bit bucket. Now, I go straight to the phone. I feel uncomfortable making the call, but when I reach people, they’re always pleasant. As the founder of a tiny start-up, I learned that I needed all of these tricks to close my media partnership deal. I worked on the most senior person in the organization, asked executives about their strategy, let them come up with the ideas, showed how the project would make them look innovative and reduced the level of risk by guaranteeing that I would make sure it succeeded.
I’m hoping that I have finally shaken First Meeting Syndrome for good.