Ted leaned across the table and with a pleasant and eager smile, explained to his would-be client that he had a lot of experience and that he was passionate about this work. He talked about all the things that can go wrong in a family business and assured the client that he was there to help. He also showed the client a list of potential references and provided details about the types of projects he had worked on and the results he had been able to achieve.
The client, polite and thoughtful, listened patiently. He asked a few questions and talked sparingly about his business. He never mentioned his family. He never told his story or shared more than the most cursory aspects of life. An opportunity just passed us by…
Ted, an aspiring family business consultant had called and asked if I would join him on a new client visit. He had been doing a lot of networking and had had plenty of preliminary meetings but had failed to land a client. He was disappointed and frustrated and he wanted some feedback. I loved his passion and his genuine concern. I also knew that his heart was in the right place, but his technique was letting him down. As a result of that meeting, I took some time to try to encapsulate my philosophy of consulting… and getting a foot in the door, so that we can truly deliver on the passion that motivates us to do this important work.
- Core Purpose – Be crystal clear about why you are there. In a nutshell, why do you do this work? I can clearly and honestly say that I am here because I am committed to saving family businesses and protecting jobs across this country.
- Compassion – This is not about you, it is about THEM. You are not there to prove how smart, effective, impactful that you are, but rather to learn how smart, effective and impactful they are. Ask questions that demonstrate an honest desire to learn about your client and his or her experiences. There will be plenty of time later to share your own.
- Curiosity – Demonstrate a genuine curiosity to learn more about the other person, not to sell them something or figure out how your solution can match their problem. Instead, try to learn more about their view of the world. Learn to ask questions that help to broaden the conversation, respectfully and thoughtfully. The client should be doing most of the talking. If you find you are taking too much of the floor, then the conversation has become about the wrong person!
- Connection – Look for areas of common ground, shared experiences, similarities to other clients or other situations. Rather than simply looking to provide solutions, look first to find a connection regarding the issues. Explore the client’s expectations and past experiences to better understand your potential role. I like to think of this phase as friend-building rather than customer development. If I have made a friend because we have connected on some level, I am much more likely to be able to find a way to serve that person with integrity.
- Character – Be true to what you believe in and never let your standards waiver. Deliver on your promises, be transparent, honest and clear. If you don’t know, admit and offer to find answers. Share your true self, rather than boasting, bragging or posturing. Potential clients are often wary of looking foolish or ill-prepared. We can put others at ease by being humble, thoughtful, and, at times, honest about our own vulnerabilities or mistakes.
As the meeting looked like it was about to close, Ted looked beseechingly in my direction. I turned and said that I was really curious to learn how the client had decided to start the business. Ted, realizing what he had missed, pivoted beautifully. He took a deep breath, apologized for talking so much, admitted that he was a bit nervous and said that he, too, would like to hear more about the business. The client laughed and said that he thought that was the case and he happily launched into a funny story about buying the business from a neighbor. Ted, admitting his nervousness, opened a door – he created some honest common ground that helped us establish a new conversation. And, he landed a project. I, on the other hand, was offered the welcomed gift of observation and was reminded of the power of connection. Thank you, Ted!